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THE HEALING GODS OF THE ANCIENT CELTS
PART I: GENERAL SURVEY
The ancient Celts and their records.
HE earliest home of the Celts in Europe seems to have been in the basin of the upper Danube, in the
basin of the Main, to the east of the Rhine, and in the areas corresponding to modern Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria, spreading thence to Gaul, the British Isles, Spain, and northern Italy, while to the east they migrated to Pannonia, Illyria, and Dacia, and even to Asia Minor.1 Their ancient beliefs and practices regarding matters of health and of disease and its treatment, seem to have corresponded very closely to those of other peoples in the early stages of development toward civilization; when misfortune and disease came upon them they looked to the gods for relief and appealed to them through the medium of their priests. The scanty and fragmentary data concerning their religious faith and cultic usages are scattered over western Europe, for the Celts left no records except brief inscriptions (found mainly in the region of ancient Gaul and the Rhenish provinces, and in lesser number in Britain) and traditions, mythical tales, and folklore (especially in Ireland and Wales). Nevertheless, this material presents a general uniformity which is indicative of a tenacious retention of the essentials of
1 Dottin, Les anciens peuples de l'Europe, pp. 201-211; Schrader, Atlas de géographie historique, Map 11.
their native faith, but it is so lacking in detail that, although generously supplemented by the comments of contemporaneous classical writers, it is barely sufficient to reconstruct even an approximately satisfactory outline of their religion and religious customs. To add to the difficulties, this system was undermined in Gaul and Britain by the advent of the Romans, and its purity was invaded by the cults of foreign gods from Rome and the East. Augustus forbade Roman citizens to attend Druid ceremonies (Suetonius, Vita Claudii, 25); Roman ritual was introduced, shrines and temples were erected on Roman models, and the Celtic deities were assimilated with Roman divinities and received Roman names. Thereafter the native Celtic religion bore the strong impress of Roman influences and domination, while in Ireland the victory of Christianity obscured the figures of the ancient gods.'
The Celtic religion.
Celtic religion centered about the great activities of nature, especially around the deities of fertility and growth; and over all nature's activities presided superhuman beings differing in character, rank, power, and functions. With the development of religious conceptions, the vague primitive numina of the more important aspects of nature tended to become definite as gods and goddesses, and received names. The spirits of vegetation, notably those of corn and general agriculture, were apparently evolved very early and were regarded as female until the men, the hunters and warriors, joined the women in tilling the soil. Natural objects, such as trees and forests, wells and springs, streams and rivers, moun
2 H. d'Arbois de Jubainville, Principaux auteurs à consulter sur l'histoire des Celtes, Paris, 1902.
3 MacCulloch, Celtic Mythology, pp. 17-20, 206-213.
tains and sky, sun and moon, had indwelling deities who presided over them; and there were civilization-divinities of the arts and crafts, of music, of commerce, and of war. There were also spirits of the earth and of the 'otherworld,' and these, occurring singly or in groups, were beneficent, maleficent, or of mixed character like human beings. They were believed to have magic skill and to live in forests or in caves and other recesses of the earth, whence they emerged to manifest themselves, preferably at night. There were many of these groups, such as the benignant Lugoves, the malignant Dusii (Augustine, de Civitate Dei, xv, 29), the Castæci and Castæcæ, the Icotii or Icotia, the Di Silvani and Deæ Silvanæ, the Di Casses, and the Nervini or Nervinæ. From the divinities of fertility and growth the greater seasonal gods of agriculture were evolved; and from the cults of vegetation-deities the women developed the worship of the nature-goddesses of fertile 'Mother-Earth,' of the Matres and the Matronæ, the Proximæ and the Iunones, 'Mothers' or 'Kinswomen,' who were the protecting divinities of various localities.
Most of the Celtic deities were local in name, although like many others in character and function. Each tribe, group, and town had its own tutelary divinity, whose rôle, while local, was similar to those of other groups or places having different or kindred names. Wells and springs were divine and gave their gifts of fertility and healing to the people, each well having its presiding genius, a spirit or nymph who protected it or who was associated with the deity of the fountain. These divinities of thermal or mineral springs with medicinal qualities were always healing deities, this aspect appearing as a local survival
E. Anwyl, "Demons and Spirits (Celtic)," in ERE iv, 573-574.
of a general ancient belief; and in later times the principal therapeutic gods shared their functions with Apollo, Esculapius, and the nymphs of the forests and waters.
The Celtic pantheon appears to have been very large, and the names of about two hundred and eighty deities have survived in inscriptions, although many of these are duplications of the same divinity under different names in various places. Some of these occur but once, and nothing more is known concerning them; while doubtless many names have entirely disappeared. Cæsar (de Bello Gallico, vi, 17-18), recognizing among the Celtic gods certain deities with functions and characters similar to those of Roman divinities, named six of them: Mercury, Apollo, Mars, Iupiter, Minerva, and Dis Pater; while the deities Grannos, Belenus, and others were not only assimilated to Roman gods, but their names were compounded in inscriptions, such identifications and surnames indicating their character and functions, as Apollo-Grannos and Apollo-Belenus, who, like Apollo, dispensed light, warmth, and healing. Cæsar (ib., vi, 17) termed the Celtic 'Apollo' the divinity of healing ("Apollinem morbos depellere"), and this may explain the great frequency of his name in these equations of therapeutic deities.
Classical writers describe the Celts as a religious people who never forgot or transgressed the laws of their gods, but who were diligent in the observance of all religious rites and ceremonies and who referred all matters pertaining to religion to their priests.
"Renel, Les Religions de la Gaule avant le christianisme, pp. 391-406. • Dottin, Manuel pour servir à l'étude de l'antiquité celtique, 2d ed., pp. 304-309.