The Celtic Sun God

“…in ancient days first of the long-haired nations, on whose necks once flowed the auburn locks in pride supreme; And those who pacify with blood accursed savage Teutates, Hesus’ horrid shrines, and Taranis’ altars cruel as were those loved by Diana, goddess of the north; All these now rest in peace. And you, ye Bards, whose martial lays send down to distant times the fame of valorous deeds in battle done, pour forth in safety more abundant song. While you, ye Druids, when the war was done, To mysteries strange and hateful rites returned: To you alone ’tis given the gods and stars to know or not to know; secluded groves your dwelling-place, and forests far remote. If what ye sing be true, the shades of men seek not the dismal homes of Erebus or death’s pale kingdoms; but the breath of life still rules these bodies in another age…” Lucan –Pharsalia 1stC AD

Lucan’s famous account attempts, in a few lines, to sum up the whole religious worldview of the defeated Gauls – one which he portrays as once savage and dangerous. He names four gods – Teutates, Hesus and Taranis, and very interestingly ‘Diana, goddess of the north’. It is perhaps surprising that he fails to mention by name the two particular gods who seem from epigraphic, numismatic, literary and historical evidence to have been very prominent in religious landscape of the Celts: Bel(enos) and Lug.

Julius Caesar, instigator of the ‘glorious’ events recounted in the Pharsalia, claimed that Mercury was the Gauls’ chief god:

“…They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions…” (De Bello Gallico, Book 6)

Secondarily he mentions that they also worshipped Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva. ‘Teutatis’, ‘Esus’ and ‘Taranis’ are the names Lucan gives for Caesar’s interpretatio romanum of ‘Apollo’, ‘Mars’ and ‘Jupiter’ but in Pharsalia, he substitutes ‘Minerva’ with ‘Diana’. Given that he was writing almost 100 years after Caesar’s Gaulish conquest, it is fair to say that he may have had better information, but it is clear from the tone of Pharsalia that Lucan considered continental Celtic culture (except, of course, for the poetic arts) to already have been largely smashed and replaced by the Romans. So what of the Gaulish ‘Mercury’ mentioned by Caesar? On this he seems – on the face of things – to be silent, but analysis reveals a more interesting aspect:

It is fairly self-evident from Pharsalia, that Lucan has used Caesar as his source, albeit updated with the names of the indigenous gods. Lucan’s version, however, commences not with a mention of Mercury but with the allusions to the overly-proud barbarians and their fiery flowing locks of hair. Pride, as they say, comes before a fall – and perhaps the greatest and well-known example of this for the people of the ancient Roman world was the story of Alexander of Macedonia – whose ambition so famously over-reached his ability to outlive his conquests. The Celts were well aware of Alexander – they used his image on almost all of their coins.

A horned Alexander from a coin of the Sequani (Jura mountains, France)

A horned Alexander from a coin of the Sequani (Jura mountains, France)

So, what is the connection between Celts, Roman Mercury and Alexander? Caesar’s statement about the ‘many images’ of Mercury is interesting when one considers the most prevalent images created by the Celts were not apparently statuary idols, but coins. To the Romans and Greeks, Mercury (Hermes) was the god of trade, crafts and was generally seen as what Plato might have termed a Daemone or spiritual intermediary between man and the gods. He was also the god of poets such as Lucan perhaps being the reason Lucan does him honour with a form of circumlocution when repeating Caesar’s account of Celtic religion. Mercury was also the psychopomp who conveyed the souls of the dead on their mystical journey – something which was of core interest to Celtic religion, and upon which Lucan remarks. He was usually depicted wearing a winged traveller’s sun-hat or petasus and with winged shoes. It is therefore not inconceivable that the similarity between the ‘horned Alexander’ iconography of the coins and the images of Mercury common in the Greek and Roman world led to Caesar’s assertion that the Gauls venerated Mercury as their chief god. Indeed, on the Gallo-Roman ‘Pillar of the Boatmen’ from Lutetia (modern Paris) on the Seine, the horned figure ‘Cernunnos’ occurs. Note that his horns are adorned with rings – possibly symbolic of the older form of Celtic money before coins became popular:

Horned figure from the 'Pillar of the Boatmen', named 'Cernunnos'.

Horned figure from the ‘Pillar of the Boatmen’, named ‘Cernunnos’.

‘Cernunnos’ is a name obviously derived from the Celtic name for ‘Soldier’ (Cern), and he appears to be wearing a helmet with stags antlers on it: The image of the stag with adorned antlers is specifically associated with therut’ during which combats occur over mating rights, typically at territorial boundaries such as on plains near river crossings (such as with the battles in the Irish epic tale Tain bo Culainge). In a warrior-pastoralist culture the link between battles and fecundity is explicit in this image. In the same way, the branch is a symbol of fecundity for more arable-agrarian societies, and was widely used in Greek and Roman iconography. In fact, the antlers combine both images on account of their shape.  Wings for that matter are also branched, as are bolts of lightning and rivers. The Pillar des Nautes is awash with Roman-Celtic syncretism.

So – the god of wealth and fertility whom Caesar likened to Mercury and had ‘many images’ made of him was represented using the traditional image of Alexander with a cornucopia attached to his head. Lucan’s triple-set of names: Teutates, Hesus and Taranis (and their ‘blood-stained’ altars) may well all be a ‘triple aspect’ of the one he leaves un-named, teasing us with his palpable circumlocution of the underlying divinity he must have realised was represented. Lucan was a clever lad, and the gods (no doubt Mercury himself) were to receive him into Elysium at a young age – a ‘rock and roll’ life and death.

But what about ‘Belenos’? Or, for that matter, ‘Lugus’? What even of the ancestor-god Caesar remarked upon as being called (or like) Dis Pater…. Might they all be one and the same?

In terms of likeness to Mercury, it is Lug(us) who has usually been given this honour, and for whom there have been parallels found in the mythology of the ‘surviving’ Celtic language cultures of Wales (Lleu) and Ireland (Lugh), both of which associate with crafts. Lug (like Belenos) appears in placenames and inscriptions from all across the Atlantic European world, and into the reaches of the Danube river basin.

Evidence for Belenos’ prominence is shown by tribal or kin-group designations such as ‘Belgae‘, and personal names such as that of British King Cunobellin(us) (1stC AD).   In the early medieval ‘Harleian Genealogies’ (British Library Harleian MS 3859) of the Kings of west Britain (Wales) and the ‘Henn Ogled’ (Old North – Southern Scotland down to Lancashire), ‘Beli’ and his wife ‘Anna’ are named as the ultimate ancestors of King Owen of Gwynedd. Anna is even said (like Brighid in Ireland) to be a relative of the Virgin Mary – further proof of attempts at early christianising attempts at syncresis with biblical narratives:

“…Beli magni filius, et Anna, mater eius, quam dicunt esse consobrina Mariae uirginis, matris Domini nostri Iesu Christi. …”

With the Romanisation of the barbarian Celtic cultures, the worship of Bel/Belenos would become submerged in the cult of Apollo, demonstrating that Bel/Belenos was an overtly solar deity.

The stone fascia of the Roman-British shrine of 'Minerva Aquae Sulis' at Bath displayed this magnificent head of 'Manannan'. Note the 'solar' rays of the hair and the 'watery' appearance of the beard...

The stone fascia of the Roman-British shrine of ‘Minerva Aquae Sulis’ at Bath displayed this magnificent head of  ‘Apollo  Grannus’. Note the ‘solar’ rays of the hair and the ‘watery’ appearance of the beard…

The association of Apollo Grannus with Mars at various spa shrines in the Romano-Celtic world maintains the martial link of the Celts’ beloved warrior/sun-god icon, Alexander, whose conquests (and failure) had inspired the Celtic invasion of the Balkans, Thrace, Macedonia, Greece and Phrygia in the 3rdC BCE. At some of these, the ‘Celtic’ Mars is also sometimes depicted in attire we would more associate with Mercury, demonstrating a syncresis between the two Roman gods in the Celtic mindset:

A 'Celtic Mars' - note the combined imagery of Mercury and the warrior

A ‘Celtic Mars’ – note the combined imagery of Mercury and the warrior

Some depictions even show Mars with wings – perhaps a convenient spiritual representation of what the Celts desired: Death in glorious battle and an ‘autopsychopompic’ flight to the Otherworld.

A 'winged Mars'. Cunobelinus had a winged figure on some his 1stC CE coins.

A ‘winged Mars’ – A winged figure is also seen on some Celtic 1stC BCE/CE coins. The horse depicted is also sometimes winged.

The conjecture I should like to raise again is this:

That the Atlantic Europeans before the Romans had a principally duotheistic religion comprising of a god and a goddess who each had a ‘triple’ identity. The imposition of Roman culture and then the overlay of Christianity created a ‘Celtic Pantheon’ which in truth never really existed. ‘Lugh’, ‘Belenos’, ‘Teutates’, ‘Esus’, ‘Taranis’ were all epithets of the same solar deity who conducted the souls of the dead in their Otherworld destinations. His companion ‘Diana’ (De Áine) had similar multiple-epithets and was associated with the worldy creation and manifestation.

2 thoughts on “The Celtic Sun God

  1. Apollo’s main role within roman religion was not a solar deity, however; Sol was rendered very distinct from him. Ergo, equations between Apollo and celtic gods cannot render the latter solar deities, especially in the light of syncretism with clearly non-solar gods like Veles.

    More importantly, the one deity in reccorded celtic reccords that appears to be a solar deity, Sul/Sulis, is female. The irish Etain is also a female figure speculated to be a remnant of a solar goddess, so it appears more likely that, like the norse, ancient celts invisioned the sun as a woman, not as a masculine god.

    • The resurrection of a cult of Sol Invictus at Rome was a late-event, during the 3rdC CE, and I do not believe that the cult of ‘Sol Indiges’ had any great importance at Rome from the advent of the Hellenistic age, although I might be wrong.
      The reason is that I believe that all of the masculine gods could be used to represent aspects of the solar-annual cycle, and that the goddesses offered a complimentary aspect. Apollo was used to represent healing (renewal is a daily solar feature) and prophecy (knowledge from the grave – beyond the sunset, or knowledge from the future – before the sunrise). This is why mystery cults were so popular, as they revealed such meanings to their followers. You can see the same solar archetypes expressed in the mythology of Zeus/Jupiter, Dionysus/Bacchus, Hermes/Mercury, Ares/Mars etc too.

      As for Veles, do you mean the medieval Slavic god? I understand that there is an etymological suggestion that the name is related to ‘Heles’ and ‘Helios’ through aspiration of the principle ‘V’… This would explain his apparent solar characteristics, although the conflation/conflict with Perun is confused by the Christianisation of the myths which emphasise the ‘Solar’ in one and demote the ‘cthonic’ aspects of the other. Perun/Veles are an interesting version of the Apollo-Python mythology. Veles may also be linked to the ‘Weland’ character of north European myth, who occurs in Irish mythology as Cuillean. The Icelandic Eddas also have ‘Vili’ who is part of triple-representation with Odin and Ve…

      Might not ‘Veles’ and ‘Velenos’, be related, in that case? It is linguistically possible…

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