Revisiting the ‘Celtic vs. Germanic’ question


Followers of the Atlantic Religion blog will possibly be aware that I have made allusions to my belief that the pagan faith-ideologies of ancient northern Europe stem from a common unified root-system buried in the mists of the Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological periods (roughly 4000-1000 BC). This underwent a protracted process of differentiation as a result of the trans-European religio-militarist cultures (Greek, Celtic, Roman) of the late Bronze Age and Iron Age periods (roughly 1000BC-400AD).

These complex influences have resulted in modern historians ascribing an artificial and arbitrary division of northern European paleo-religious culture into ‘Celtic’ and ‘Germanic’. Reasons for this division as it stands today can be ascribed to the following factors:

(i) Linguistic differences between Germanic and Celtic cultures which caused Greco-Roman authors to categorise them as different.

(ii) Reliance upon limited and highly-biased contemporary (Greek and Roman) written source-materials on north European Iron-Age religion. Greco-Roman authors tended to split peoples up into ‘civilised’ peoples, worthy of understanding, and ‘barbarians’ – the unconquered fear-inducing rabble. The latter category, were only generally to be understood so far as they interfaced with civilised cultures, which between the 4th century BC and the 4th century AD was limited to portraying their fierce unruliness in need of taming, and their unsophisticated inferiority requiring civilisation.

There is a pervasive fallacy – committed initially by the ancient Greeks and Romans and still prevalent today – that ‘barbarous’ culture is static, unchanging and timelessly primitive and lacking sophistication until exposed to ‘civilization’

(iii) Biased, incorrect or acontextual information provided in early to late medieval christian and ‘secular’ literature. A 3rd century Christian within the Roman empire was an edgy revolutionary in a new-order of portable enlightenment not tied to any mystery cult. To them establishment paganism was meaningless and archaic and easily dismissed! LIkewise, an 8th century Christian writing about contemporary Nordic pagan practices of which he is in horror is hardly going to be sympathetic, just as an 8th century Irish hagiographer is hardly going to treat a history of his religion’s triumph over that of the past with true sympathy to the ‘defeated’ religion.

(iv) Historical confirmation bias: The 13th century AD Eddas from Iceland were written by authors in a relatively newly-Christianized culture, for a contemporary audience versed in the popular and prevalent European ‘Romance’ literature, which dealt specifically with christianized pagan themes and heroic sagas. The same can be applied to Irish literature during the same period. These were later ‘recovered’ and popularised during the ‘Enlightenment’ period when European cultures (such as Denmark, Britain and Ireland) sought prestige in their own ancient pagan past as well as their own Christian present, and were treated officially as having historic as well as literary merit.

(v) There was a relatively early death of Iron Age ‘Celtic’ religious culture as it was largely subsumed into Greco-Roman civic, pagan and Christian cultures by the 5th century AD. In contrast, the Nordic and Baltic pagan cultures would continue to evolve for nearly another 1000 years before fading from common practice, with enclaves still identifiable in parts of Lithuania, Estonia etc as late as the 16th century, if not longer. This long gulf of time has left us struggling to see any similarity between 13th century Icelandic descriptions of pagan mythology with that offered about ‘Celtic’ religion in scanty reports of ancient Greeks and Romans a thousand years earlier. There has been a constructive tendency to use scanty intermediary evidence from Jordanes about Gothic religion, from Bede and contemporaries about Anglo-Saxon religion in the 7th century, and undetailed but supportive comments from Beowulf and Saxo Grammaticus etc, as well as more modern archaeological finds to support the narrative of the Eddas as representing an ancient ‘Germanic’ continuum, but this is no more reliable than Homer’s speculations about what was actually believed in Mycenaean Greece 1000 years before his writing of the Iliad. Stating that Germanic Europeans worshipped different gods in a different way to Celtic Europeans is about as useful and nonsensical as claiming ‘the Romans worshipped Jupiter, Mars, Minerva and Juno’! You have to qualify that with a time-period, and be more nuanced: ‘People of Rome in the 4th century BC followed the state-religion in worshipping Jupiter, Mars, Minerva and Juno’ would be more specific. It is quite possible that ‘Celts’ of the 3rd century BC were worshipping a raging, wise, possibly one-eyed warrior god as they conquered and looted the great oracle at Delphi. Dionysus, Belinus and Wotan have many similarities, save for their names.

(vi) Archaeology has tended to reinforce perceived differences between ‘Celtic’ and ‘Germanic’ by relying upon the forgoing preconceptions based upon mythological and historical literature for its own interpretations, although modern thinking is beginning to change this situation. What is apparent however, is that increasing accrual of material evidence coupled with progressive sophistication in archaeological techniques is forcing us to re-examine historical interpretations. We know that peoples in Bronze Age Denmark were performing similar ‘religious’ behaviors to those of Bronze Age Ireland, Holland, Spain, France, Germany and Britain, and that these were connected somehow to material cultures seen in Mycenaean Greece. Many of the material and behavioral cultural indicators of religion – deliberate submersion of objects in water and other ‘votive’ and inhumation practices continued through into the era of the eventual Romanisation of most ‘Celtic’ lands, many of which come under the modern conception of ‘Germanic’ or ‘Nordic’. Why, for instance, was the archetypally-‘Celtic’ Gundestrup Cauldron discovered deliberately concealed in a Danish bog? Even ignoring the fact that its workmanship is typically Thracian – from the southern Balkans, modern Bulgaria – this tells of a more widespread shared belief-system.

Contemporary dissatisfaction with the portable religious franchises of Judaeo-Christian-Islamic thinking, and the deeply divisive, unsettling and damaging effects these have been having on the world of late, make the drive to rediscover the original indigenous European/Eurasian (Indo-European) philosophical and religious systems all that more pressing.


Sirona – another syncretic guise of the Celtic ‘Great Goddess’

Sirona was another mask worn by the Roman-era Celtic (ie – Atlantic) ‘Great Goddess’. We know of her name because of epigraphic evidence found associated with statues of her image, often at 2ndC CE religious sites associated with springs of water. Her name ought properly be written tSirona (as would be the  case in modern Irish) as the initial vowel sound of her name is the celtic languages’ dentalised ‘s’, pronounced something like ‘ts-‘ and because of this the name was sometimes written Đirona or Thirona.

The most significant areas of her cult stretched from the east of France, and eastward to the waters of the upper Danube in southern Germany, Austria and Hungary. She seems to have been affiliated with hot springs, and was consequently found linked to a solar male god such as Apollo-Borvo or Apollo-Grannus, and both were associated with healing. The name of Sirona is found as far west as Brittany (Amorica) but has not yet been found in Britain – the Britons named their syncretic deity at the great springs in Bath Sulis-Minerva.

Because of the ages-old association of mineral-rich hot springs with healing, Sirona’s imagery borrows from the Apollonian family of Greek gods and goddesses, in particular that of Hygeia, daughter of Apollo’s medical son Aesculapias. The syncretic-era statues of Sirona often show her twined with a snake after the manner of her Greek counterpart. Remember, the Celtic peoples of Europe were not late-comers to Greek philosophical, religious and cultural influence: they had at least 600 years of exposure to Greek religion before the era of their conquest and assimilation by the Romans. The Romans also relied upon Greek religious philosophy to underpin their own version of it, and Apollo was perhaps the most influential of Greek gods.


The Sirona statue from the temple discovered at Hochscheid, Moselle, Germany. Note the snake coiled on her arm, eating from a patera of three eggs.

Modern replica of the Sirona statue from the temple discovered at Hochscheid, Moselle, Germany. Note the snake coiled on her arm, eating from a patera of three eggs.

The iconography of Sirona tended to depict her as a young woman wearing a long gown (sometimes she was half-naked) with a diadem on her head. A snake was often coiled around her right arm, and she sometimes held a patera containing three eggs in her other hand. The snake in the Hochscheid example appears to be either guarding or interested in eating the eggs, and the combination of these two together is redolent of the ‘Orphic Egg’ of the ancient Thracian/Greek mysteries. Other features of her imagery indicate further references to the chthonic mystery cults, including ears of corn, associated with Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Linguistic aspects of Sirona’s name:

It has been speculated based upon linguistic evidence that Sirona was a ‘star’ goddess. The ancient Transalpine Gaulish word for ‘star’ was ‘sirom‘, related to the Latin word ‘Sidus‘ (from which we get the word ‘Sidereal’). For the Greeks the word was ‘Aster’. The initial ‘tS’ sound of Sirona was a metathesis to ‘sT-‘. ‘Sirona’ could therefore have derived from ‘Sterona’. To derive the Greek ‘Asteria’ (the name of Hecate’s Titaness mother), the word is preceded by the Celtic ‘definite article’ (‘the’), which was pronounced ‘a’, giving ‘Asteria’ or ‘Asterona’. The diadem on the head of the Hochscheid statue is usually cited as support for this theory of naming. However, modern Gaelic orthography may have preserved some early Celtic language conventions: In particular the ‘tS’ and ‘sT’ metathesis. This makes us, by necessity, examine another word which may relate to the name of Sirona, and has been linked to Bridget – Ireland’s goddess of smithcraft: This is the Gaelic word ‘tSaoir’, which means ‘craftsman’ or ‘smith’, and which is demonstrated in Gaelic family names such as ‘MacTeer’ or ‘Teare’, and the Irish mythological name of the ‘Gobban tSaor’. These, of course, relate to Bridget ‘Goddess of Smithcraft’… So ‘Sirona’ might have nothing to do with stars and more to do with the mysteries of nature’s secret re-forging, as suggested by her snake and eggs and veneration at sacred springs.  


‘Fairy Paths’ in the Gaelic world

The belief in Ireland (and elsewhere) that certain fairies were restless and compelled to wander from place to place caused a superstitious belief in ‘fairy paths’. These typically connected the various places where fairies were believed to haunt – their hills and raths, and ‘dancing grounds’ or meadows. People tended to avoid building on these perceived routes, as illustrated by the following folktale from The Fireside Stories of Ireland by Patrick Kennedy (Pub. Dublin 1870, McGlashan & Gill) pp.142-143:


It is known that the hill folk in their nightly excursions, and in the visits of one tribe to another, go in a straight line, gliding as it were within a short distance of the ground, and if they meet any strange obstacles in their track they bend their course above them, or at one side, but always with much displeasure. A farmer named Finglas, a stranger to the old ways of the country, took this farm and was not at all satisfied with the accommodation offered by the old farm house and yard.There was neither cow-house nor stable, except an excuse for such conveniences at the end of the yard. He would have new buildings made at the side, and dug out the foundation at once, but was warned that the Fairies Pass lay directly across the bawn, and that it would excite their sovereign displeasure to find stable or barn or cow-house in their way. Unhappily, Finglas, though married to a Roman Catholic wife, was himself a benighted Presbyterian, and as such a contemner of all reverence due to the Good People. But see, the result of pretending to be wiser than your neighbours: Scarcely were the buildings thatched and the cows and horses installed in their niches when the wisdom of the old people became evident. One animal after another without apparent cause began to refuse its food, languished, and died. In vain was recourse made to the most skilful cattle doctors. Their medicines proved naught, and fairy men or women would have nothing to do with the devoted beasts – they were on the Fairies Path. Not until three fourths of his cattle were slain by the elf bolts was Finglas overruled, and at last persuaded to construct new buildings at the end of the bawn.

The ‘lesson’ illustrated by such a typical tale of ‘fairy paths’ is not too dissimilar to those associated with fairy hills and raths/forts, and likewise of the ‘fairy grounds’ or lawns where they were supposed to hold their revels: Humans had better be careful, lest the ever-hungry Otherworld exert its frightening ‘abstracting’ influence over the offender. The great survey of Irish oral folklore organised by the Coimisiún Béaloideasa Éireann during the early-mid 20thC was to uncover many similar tales.

However, the paths taken by the People of Peace were not always limited to these actual or imagined routes connecting landscape features. In many ‘celtic’ regions, there is a belief that the invisible ones cannot cross running water directly, and this has apparently led to spirits being associated with certain ‘fairy bridges’ such as those found in the Isle of Man. The famous Norwegian folktale of the three ‘Billy Goats Gruff’ and the troll who lived under the bridge may have some bearing on this local tradition.

The Kewaigue (Oakhill) 'Fairy Bridge' in the Isle of Man. It was built off the main track by about 30 yards, and sits mysteriously among the trees...

The Kewaigue (Oakhill) ‘Fairy Bridge’ in the Isle of Man. It was built off the main track by about 30 yards, and sits mysteriously among the trees…

By the same logic, boundary walls (particularly those with ‘hallowed’ ground, such as burial grounds and churchyards) were considered another place where spirits were more likely to be concentrated and encountered. Likewise, certain boundary lines and walls between property gained similar attributions, sometimes depending upon the land use and ownership.

‘Fairy Holes’ and boundaries in the Isle of Man:

A ‘fairy hole’ was a hole in an earth or stone hedge where three property boundaries coalesced. Manx people who used to have a strong belief in fairies, would toss a stone (usually a quartz pebble) into one of these after spitting upon it, in the hope that the spirit world would take their illness or bad luck from them. The belief appears to have been based upon an idea that fairies travelled along walls and boundaries between land divisions.

3rd Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey – Andreas. Manx Natural History and Antiquarian Society, 1911:” … At a corner formed by the boundary fences of the three Quarterlands of Keeill Tushtag, Braust and Ballaquane, was a ” Fairy-hole, ” or hollow in the top of the earthen embankment, about 12 in. diam. We were told that “any one wanting a cure would put in a stone with a spit,” the object no doubt being to identify it more particularly with his own person, so that his own malady or affliction should pass into it. That this was so, and that the malady was capable of being conveyed to another, is made clear by the fact that our informant’s father had once taken one of the stones out of the Fairy Hole and become very ill ; he did not recover till he had returned it… “

This belief that fairies travelled along walls and other boundaries (such as streams and rivers) probably arose from the fact that in former times (possibly since the establishment of christianity), such boundaries were regularly walked and the property they enclosed blessed by the clergy in a ceremony known as rogation, designed to repel evil influences (demons etc) and promote fertility. Such boundaries were liminal places, existing ‘between’ such nebulous human ideas of ownership and supposed sanctity, in which spiritual entities might find a place to manifest. This idea appears slightly different to the Irish one previously mentioned in which fairies troop between their allotted hills and forts. However, this does not mean that the Manx people had, on the whole, radically different ideas about fairies to Irish or Scots people: Fairies were believed to have habitations and places of retreat between which they travelled. They were believed more mobile and active at certain times of day (dusk and nightime), and of the year (Samhain, Beltane). Encounters with them at these places risked the health and sanity of humans and their property, and ‘apotropaic’ measures would be taken to ameliorate any potential harm or fear.

The difference in what was considered a ‘fairy path’ was influenced as much by the customs and politics of land tenure and boundary definitions as by medieval religious customs and the arrangements of ancient manmade structures. Ancient trackways could become ‘fairy paths’, and in Ireland’s flat boglands, these would inevitably be constructed in straight lines between prominent areas of high ground, which unsurprisingly were associated with mysterious and ancient human structures. Tribal boundaries within the Gaelic world at the advent of Chrisitianity were based around the needs for transhumance pastoralism with central defensive positions coupled to more elevated retreats. In the Isle of Man, which (like parts of Ireland, the Hebrides and West Highlands of Scotland) experienced Norse settlement in the middle ages, land was traditionally divided into small estates based upon an allodial system of freeholds. These were increasingly incorporated into more extensive ‘feudal’ estates following the Norman conquests and expansion of continental monasticism. The impositions of English and British expansionism from the Early Modern period onwards further upset these traditional land boundaries and usages. The combination of these different historical and cultural boundary changes all had a deep influence upon the fairy beliefs associated with liminal and marginal places…