Beltane: not a ‘fire festival’…

The 'Beltaine flower' Caltha Palustris (, Marsh Marigold, Lus buí Bealtaine) emerging in 'curragh' pools at Beltaine.

The ‘Beltaine flower’ Caltha Palustris (Marsh Marigold, Lus Buí Bealtaine) emerging in ‘curragh’ pools at Beltaine.

The ancient Atlantic Gaelic seasonal festival of Beltane, Beltaine or Boaldyn (usually ascribed to the 1st May/12th May) celebrates the opening of summer and the burgeoning growth and fertility of nature. Before the second half of the 19th century, it was a great cause for public and domestic celebrations and observances in many rural districts of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, as well as many districts is Wales and England. Seemingly coming down from prehistory, these seasonal May celebrations were characterised by hilltop bonfire parties, cattle-saining (prior to transhumance to the summer pasturage) and the celebration of foliage, flowers, fertility and water through various customary and superstitious observances.

Was Beltane really a fire festival?

There is a popular conception that Beltane was a fire festival, not in the least reinforced by a famous early record of Beltane celebrations, found in the c.10thC Irish glossary-cum-clerical-resource-book known as Sanais Chormaic (‘Knowledge of Cormac’), which deals with Irish words, concepts and customs important to medieval religious functionaries and scholars of Irish orature and literature. Whitley Stokes’ 1868 edition of John O’Donovan’s translation contains the following two relevant entries:

“Bil from Bial i.e. an idol god, unde beltine – May day – i.e. fire of Bel.


“Belltaine… May-day i.e. bil-tene i.e. lucky fire, i.e. two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle [as a safeguard] against the diseases of each year to those fires [in marg.] ‘they used to drive the cattle between them’…”

The first example is very intriguing, as it states that ‘Bil’ was an ‘idol god’, and that ‘beltine’ means ‘fire of Bel’. This is slightly at odds with the definition given for ‘Belltaine’, as ‘lucky fire’. No connection is made of the bible’s Baal, however – this would come later.

The second passage states that between the two Beltaine fires, cattle were driven. The original text and its marginalia are by no means clear as to their exact meaning: it is NOT necessarily saying that druids used to build a pair of bonfires between which cattle were led or driven! Evidence from copious historical and folkloric records confirms that Irish ‘Beltaine’ fires in Ireland were held on 1st May as well as at Midsummer day, with many traditions being interchangeable. William Robert Wilde noted this in his immediate post-famine account of lost or dying Irish traditions, Irish Popular Superstitions (Dublin, 1852) :

“… As at the Midsummer festival so at the May fires, the boys of an adjoining bonfire often made a sudden descent and endeavoured to carry off some of the fuel from a neighbouring bonfire, and serious consequences have resulted therefrom. When all was over it was no uncommon practice in Connaught at least at the Midsummer fire to drive the cattle through the greeshagh or warm ashes as a form of purification, and a against witchcraft, fairies, murrain, blackleg, loss of milk and other misfortunes or diseases. Even the ashes which remain bear a charm or virtue and were sprinkled about like the red and yellow powders at the Hindoo festival of Hoolie …” (p.50)

Wilde supposed, like many scholars of the 18th and 19thC, that Mayday Bealtaine was the original festival, transferred to the ‘christian’ festival of midsummer during the era of primary evangelism. That both occasions (1st May and Midsummer) were ones at which the smoke and embers from the celebratory fires were used in saining people, animals, fields and properties might support this, but it is evident that midsummer celebrations were of an equal significance in traditional paganism across Europe. The interval period between La Belteine (1st May) and midsummer was one in which cattle were typically driven to summer pastures, which would otherwise be inhospitable and sparse during the winter months.

The Old/Middle Irish term ‘druidhe’, ‘draide‘ or ‘draithe’ in the source texts of Sanas Chormaic is the genitive plural of ‘draoi’, meaning ‘magician’, but equated generally with the Latin term druides used by Caesar and Pliny etc. This was apparently a trend started by 16/17thC Irish historian Seathrún Céitinn (d. 1644, hereafter, ‘Geoffrey Keating’) whose great account of Irish history, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, freely used the old Irish term ‘draoi‘ (pron. ‘dry’). He was effectively sealing a link in peoples’ minds behind the medieval Irish accounts of their religious/magical functionaries during the early medieval period and those of the continental and British Iron Age. Borrowing from sources such as Sanais Chormaic, and spicing things with a dash of invention, Keating (who wrote in Irish) continued the suggestion in Sanais Chormaic that ‘Bealltaine’ was a celebration of the god ‘Beil’ and fires. Here is a translation:

“… Now, when Tuathal had put these four parts together and made them into one territory called Meath, he built therein four chief fortresses, that is, a fortress in each of the portions. Accordingly he built Tlachtgha in the portion of Munster which goes with Meath; and it was there the Fire of Tlachtgha was instituted, at which it was their custom to assemble and bring together the druids of Ireland on the eve of Samhain to offer sacrifice to all the gods. It was at that fire they used to burn their victims; and it was of obligation under penalty of fine to quench the fires of Ireland on that night, and the men of Ireland were forbidden to kindle fires except from that fire; and for each fire that was kindled from it in Ireland the king of Munster received a tax of a screaball, or three-pence, since the land on which Tlachtgha is belongs to the part of Munster given to Meath. On the portion he had acquired from the province of Connaught he built the second fortress, namely Uisneach, where a general meeting of the men of Ireland used to be held, which was called the Convention of Uisneach, and it was at Bealltaine that this fair took place, at which it was their custom to exchange with one another their goods, their wares, and their valuables. They also used to offer sacrifice to the chief god they adored, who was called Beil; and it was their wont to light two fires in honour of Beil in every district in Ireland, and to drive a weakling of each species of cattle that were in the district between the two fires as a preservative to shield them from all diseases during that year; and it is from that fire that was made in honour of Beil that the name of Bealltaine is given to the noble festival on which falls the day of the two Apostles, namely, Philip and James; Bealltaine, that is Beilteine, or the fire of Beil…” (Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, Ch.39; Translation/Edition: “The general history of Ireland … Collected by the learned Jeoffrey Keating, D.D. Faithfully translated from the original Irish language, with many curious amendments taken from the Psalters of Tara and Cashel, and other authentic Records” by Dermod O’Connor. Dublin, 1723. Sourced from CELT)

A god called ‘Beil’ and druids galore! His attitude towards fire-ceremonies and druid-savvy opinions were probably shared by a strong Irish contingent of contemporary Roman Catholic and Scots scholars exiled on the continent during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Scots had been first off of the mark in the new National History stakes with Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum (1527), which made free license with the history of the druids, who Boece claimed took up residence in the Isle of Man after the fall of Anglesey to the Romans in the 1stC, and became educators of the early Scots monarchs.

These ideas would certainly have been known to the continental expatriate Jesuit historian Michael Alford (Michael Griffiths d.1652) who appears to have been the first to have commented on the possible connection between the names Belinus and Baal in his Latin book Annales Ecclesiae Britannicae (finished in the 1650s, but published posthumously at Liege in 1663). Alford and Keating were both influenced by William Camden’s former use of formal history to assert national identity in a style less conjectural that Boece and his English counterpart and plagiarist, Raphael Hollinshead. Camden used numismatic evidence from old British Celtic coins to glean the names of Britain’s earliest known kings in his famous works of British history published in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and Alford commented upon the names of these rulers depicted on Camden’s coins (which on bookplates in printed versions of Britannia). In particular he enlarges upon the name Belinus and equates it with the Canaanite Baal of the bible:

“… Effigies illa foemine, quae in eidem nummi facie prostat, Britanniae symbolum est, factae sub tributo. Obscurior vox illa NOVANE: nisi sorte Novantum, vel Trinobantum Urbem, Britanniae Principem, velis accipere. Quod in adversa parte visitur, Apollo cytharum pulsans, & Cunobelini nomen: devotum Regem significat illi numini, unde & nome ceperat. Enimvero quod Hebraeis, Chaldaeis, Suris & toti ferme Orienti, Baal, Bel, Belus erat : hoc idem Occidenti nostro Belinus…

Scholars of the early modern era onwards were generally fascinated by the references to ‘druids’ in Caesar, Pliny etc, and could be guaranteed to find traces of them in the medieval manuscript texts of the Irish. For Keating (himself a Catholic priest), druids could provide further prestige to Irish history, which could already unarguably lay claim to being a leading light in christianising northern Europe. Had not the Irish converted almost seamlessly from paganism to christianity? During the 16th and 17thC English literature had sought to attack and demean the Irish, and Keating provided a positive (and  Roman Catholic) narrative which he hoped would equal that of Camden.  He was writing in an era noted as much for its ahistoric ‘druid craze’ as its efforts to establish some kind of stable orthodox history which promoted a notion of continuous progress from a barbaric unchristian past into an enlightened christian present. As a Roman Catholic he was all too aware that Protestantism frequently derided Catholicism as backward and superstitious. Druids appeared to early modern man’s mind as the ideal bridge from savagery into ‘enlightened’ christianity, and the Irish manuscript narratives (in particular the traditions of Patrick and the early Irish saints portrayed as ‘taking over’ from the ‘druids’) were the ultimate form by which this might be expressed.

This association of the indigenous god (‘Bel’ or ‘Belinus’) with the Assyrian or Canaanite god continued to exert increasing influence as time went on. In 1707, Martin Martin’s ‘A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland’ detailed his c.1695 tour of his native Hebrides. In it, he says the following:

“… Another God of the Britons was Belus or Belinus, which seems to have been the Assyrian God Bel or Belus; and probably from this pagan deity comes the Scots term of Beltin, the first day of May, having its first rise from the custom practiced by the Druids in the isles, of extinguishing all the fires in the parish until the tithes were paid; and upon payment of them the fires were kindled in each family, and never till then. In those days malefactors were burnt between two fires; hence when they would express a man to be in a great strait, they say, “He is between two fires of Bel,” which in their language they express thus, “Edir da din Veaul or Bel.” Some object that the Druids could not be in the isles because no oaks grow there. To which I answer, that in those days oaks did grow there, and to this day there be oaks growing in some of them, particularly in Sleat, the most southern part of the isle of Skye. The houses named after those Druids shall be described elsewhere… “

Martin was steadily enlarging the prevalent theme linking Beltaine with fire and fire-gods. The druid-concept came to its fuller popular fruition in the writings of another Irish author, John Toland, whose ‘A specimen of the critical history of the Celtic religion and learning, containing an account of the Druids &c’ was published shortly after his death in 1722, to much acclaim in certain circles.

Many 18thC scholars and gentry, perhaps egged on by John Toland’s writings increasingly enjoyed identifying themselves with the ‘noble’ vision of ancient druids, who offered a closer-to-home vision of their ancient elite forebears, favoured over the previous desire to show sympathy with the great classical era Greek and Roman or biblical characters. After the custom of the day, they began to create the ‘neo-druidic’ fraternal orders which sought to establish some kind of continuity with the ancient mystical past of non-Roman, pre-christian Europe. Unfortunately, in so doing, they were also effectively censoring themselves from deviating from group-held opinions on what had really been going on among the ancient ‘Celts’…. These scholars with a love of all things ‘druidic’, were often (like Keating) of a religious background – literacy being greatest among the clergy. If not, they were steeped in the religious cultures of Protestant and Roman Catholic christianity. For this reason, they tended to attempt to fuse the contending interests in the history of ancient paganism with the biblical narratives. There thus developed in the 17th and 18thC a popular theory that Beltane was a remnant of a festival worshipping the Canaanite/Phoenician god Baal or Bel somehow transplanted to Britain by (presumably) Phoenicians in dim and dusty unknowable antiquity. 

When the Scottish laird James MacPherson published (in perfect English hexameter verse) his version of a supposedly lost ancient epic poem by the legendary Irish poet ‘Ossian’ (and son of Fionn Mac Cumhail), suddenly new visions of a hallowed ancient past to match those of Homer startled and galvanised the scholars and educated gentry of the European world. Anything seemed possible in an era already heady with the almost daily discoveries of science and exploration, and this led to a certain excessive credulity. The idea of Baal being worshipped at Beltane was given increasing force in the mid to late 18thC by antiquarians in Ireland, such as Charles Vallancey, who expounded a linguistic theory trying to prove that the Irish were descendents of tribes from the biblical Holy Land, who had bought Baal worship with them. Religiously, the Christian churches historically liked to portray ‘light’ coming from the East to the gloomy heathen West – part of a misguided popular narrative which believed humanity was continually bettering itself.

The exploratory and empire-building Europeans of the 16th-19th centuries frequently came across and subjugated populations whose level of technical and social development they equated with their own ‘savage’ pre-christian past. The new awareness of examples in the east of immolatory human sacrifice (Suttee), along with the fire-ceremonies and corpse-exposure practises of the Zoroastrians reminded druid-crazed Europeans of the Greco-Roman propaganda about Celtic immolatory practices. This reinforced the notion of a primitive religion being about fire-worship, and the Beltane activities seemed to prove this link to ‘barbarism’, extending also into a Protestant polemic narrative against ‘primitive’ and ‘ungodly’ Roman Catholicism.

In reality, the bonfires were not particular to Beltane in its various regional variants, and the practice of using smoke and fire to cleanse and bless is by no means specific to any one festival or religious/superstitous practice, being common across all religions throughout history. Bonfires were also special features of the other ‘quarter day’ and ‘cross-quarter day’ festivities in the traditonal and ancient Gaelic ‘wheel of the year’ celebrations. Samhain, Lammas/Lughnasadh, Imbolc and the celebrations of the Solstices and Equinoxes were also typified by fires.

Beltane is not just about fire: Forgetting the theories of Canaanite fire gods and druidic immolations, we are left with a pretty large and diverse collection of folkloric accounts of Beltane and Mayday practices from Britain, Mann and Ireland, which demonstrate it was a celebration of a complex set of natural forces. Fires were certainly an important element (as they are for any good communal feast or activity), but there is absolutely no reason from evidence to suggest that they were the core defining aspect. The collecting, carrying and displaying of foliage and flowers was a particularly important and widespread aspect of customs, which is unsurprising given that the beauty of surging vegetation is characteristic of the season. Water was also important, as was the ascending of mountains and hills, where it is likely to be found.

In late spring and early summer of Atlantic Europe, the combination of sunshine and rain in equal measures ensures that greenery is a potent and visible feature of the landscape, typified by the acceleration of vigourous vegetative growth in herbaceous plants, and the explosion of blossom and leaves on trees. This offered ancient peoples with a significant reliance on animal-herding in their rural economies (such as the Irish and Britons) opportunites to exploit burgeoning upland pasturage once the threat of harsh weather had receded. This coincided with better access to turbary (cutting turf/peat for fuel) and the hunting opportunities offered by movement of herds of wild deer and birds etc to the same upland pastures, as well as the movement of fish up rivers to spawn. It is perhaps no surprise that many records of older Beltane festivities involve the ascending of hills and creating of fires upon them. Of course, hills or mountains are not just good summer sources of food for man and beast, but are also often the sources of streams and rivers which proceed downwards from them and across the land and to the sea. Often saturated with rain and cloud they are great sources for the rivers which nourish the lowlands, and – excepting the morning dew – there is nothing clearer and purer than a mountain spring, just as there is nothing muddier than estuarine waters. To the ancients, mountain springs were therefore a special source of water, just as the mountains themselves attracted a special accretal of mythology, legend and spiritual importance. It is unsurprising that both dew and spring wells enjoyed a special prominence in ancient May traditions.

Wilde (Irish Popular Superstitions, 1852) noted the importance of springs, wells and water to the Irish Beltaine festivities:

“… Wells, whether blessed by saint, or consecrated by pilgrim’s rounds, or merely furnishing the healthful spring are objects of especial care and attention at May time, and in former years were frequently watched all night, particularly in pastoral districts, to ensure them against being skimmed with a wooden dish or cuppaun by some butter abducting hag as the sun rose on May morning. This was called ‘taking the flower of the well’ and the words “Come butter come” were then repeated.

Farmers drive their flocks by daybreak to the wells that they may drink there before those of their neighbours, and the greatest rivalry prevails amongst the servant girls and milkmaids as to who should first draw water from the spring well upon May morning… ” (p.54)

The idea of ‘taking the flower of the well’ echoes the English Mayday-tradition of well-dressing or ‘well-flowering’ in which wells were anciently decorated with flowers. Such collective efforts at beautifying wells and springs are believed to have an ancient pagan provenance, and removing items from such religious sites would have been associated with bad luck or an attack on the common good, as suggested by the well-skimming ‘witch’ stories common across the Gaelic world. In the same way, the removal of rags and ribbons left at ‘clootie wells’ has long been considered unlucky.

Wells and springs represent the returning of waters to the land, and waters flow in a branching manner (from branch to trunk to roots) redolent of the form of trees and vegetation whose growth is celebrated at Beltane, represented in Ireland and Britain by ‘May bushes’ and ‘May poles’. The heat of the sun is only fertile when combined with the moisture of water spouting forth from the sky and earth.

Beltane is not a ‘fire festival’… 

Solar aspects of European gods: Kronos, Janus, Neptunus, Dionysus, Mars, Apollo and Manannan

In the Bronze Age Mediterranean, a profusion of small mobile island-based cultures and vigorous sea-borne trading nations coupled with the developing ‘city’ polities fostered a diversification of European pagan philosophies. In the eastern Mediterranean, these were dominated by the Greek and Phoenician cultures.

Contact with the religiously sophisticated ancient Egyptian and Babylonian civilisations caused a continuous flow of ‘oriental’ cultural and religious ideas (including writing) into the west and the north.

These processes would inevitably lead to a fragmentation and sub-specialisation of the empirical principle of a ‘solar hypostasis god’ (and complimentary earth goddess) into multiple divinities, bearing (perhaps unsurprisingly) many different names. The persistence and re-integration of such divinities into the religious landscape of the dominant cultures of the Classical era Greeks and then the Hellenised Romans led to the demotion or promotion of these gods as part of a hierarchical ‘pantheon’, as well as a ‘familiarisation’, ‘temporalisation’ and ‘spacialisation’ of their existence in mythical traditions, based upon the apparent similarity/relation of one to the other, the age of their traditions and their location of origin. Thus the ‘Solar God’ archetype came to associated with a diverse set of gods, but most importantly: Kronos/Saturn, Poseidon/Neptunus, Dionysus/Bacchus, Mars, Apollo (worshipped by the Romans under his Greek name) and Janus (for whom there was no Greek alternative).

These identities seem to have often aggregated under a unified entity: ‘Zeus’ and ‘Jupiter’ (‘God’ and ‘Father God’) whom the mythological traditions tied up with the formal duties of ‘ruler’ of the others. He was a sky god – grandson (according to tradition) of the deified sky: Ouranus or Uranus. The mythological formality of the ‘ruler’ god, left little subtlety for expression of divine higher truths, and Zeus/Jupiter spent a mythological life doing what kings do: Lounging around, fornicating, making war, punishing miscreants and putting on spectacular displays of power and majesty. The cultic ‘mysteries’ were left to the subservient aspects of the ‘masculine’ solar divinity, who had developed many faces by the 1st millennium BC:

Kronos or Saturn:

Perhaps the most succinct appraisal of this god (borrowing from lost works of Nigidius) comes to us from the brilliant early 5thC CE pagan Greco-Roman author Macrobius Theodosius (‘Macrobius’), and his great work titled Saturnalia – one of the most significant late-classical treatises dealing with pagan mythology. It was written during a period when christianity was being actively incorporated over the shell of the receding pagan world of Rome’s great Empire, and it is possible that Macrobius himself was Christian, and wished to examine the underlying philosophical elements of paganism in order to unite the two in continuity. Of Kronos, he had this to say:

“… Κρóνος (Kronos) is the same as χρóνος (Khronos – time): for as much as the mythographers offer different versions of Saturn in their tales, the physical scientists (‘physici’ – philosophers) restore to him a certain likeness to the truth. They say that he cut off the genitals of his father, Heaven, and that when these were cast into the sea Venus was engendered, taking the name Aphrodite from the foam from which she was formed. They take this to mean that when chaos existed, time did not, since time is a fixed measurement computed from the rotation of the heavens. Hence Κρóνος, who I said was χρóνος, is thought to have been born from heaven (caelo) itself. Because the seeds for engendering all things after heaven flowed down from heaven, and because the elements that fill the world took their start from those seeds, when the world was complete in all its parts and members, the process of bringing forth seeds from heaven for the creation of the elements came to an end at a fxed moment in time, since a full complement of elements had by then been created. The capacity for engendering living things in an unbroken sequence of reproduction was transferred from water to Venus, so that all things would thenceforth come into being through the intercourse of male and female…” (Saturnalia, Book 1, 8.6-8.8, trans. Kaster, Loeb Classical Library)

The castration of the sky (Ouranos/Uranus) by it’s titanic son, Kronos, is therefore the first act producing the male:female dipole upon which the god:goddess conception hinges. The ancients equated the stars of heaven with souls and these are portrayed in the Kronian myth as the seeds spilling from the castrated genitals of the sky into the oceans. Macrobius explains that the Roman word for Kronos, Saturn, is an epithet derived from a Greek word for the penis: σαθη (sathê), from which the Dionysian ‘satyrs’ are named. Charles Darwin’s greatest offence to protestant Victorian society was, it appears, simply to have suggested that the ancient Greek pagans had the right idea about evolution and sex after all! Unseemly!

Macrobius suggests that Kronos is a solar god on account of his genesis of the cycles of time – marked to us by the turning of the days, months and years, which underpin the cycles of fertility in the world. Kronos himself was therefore possibly supposed to represent the sun, representing the first star whose heat nourishes the life on earth. Indeed, his mythological devouring and regurgitation of his divine offspring (the Olympian gods) adds further credence to the destructive and life-giving aspects of the sun. The reason Kronos was not usually considered as an immanently-presiding god, was because his birth and creation of life fixes him at the start of time, where he is doomed to stay in myth and definition: cast on the far shores of Oceanus. As an originator god, Saturn was both the ancestral deity and provider of fertility, celebrated at the annual winter Saturnalia (Rome) or Kronia (Greece) with which Christianity collocated its nativity festival at the winter solstice, when the sun was deemed to be spending most of its time in the Otherworld. The otherworld was both the retreat of dead souls, and the source of returning fertility, which Macrobius noted was engendered on the world through water, into which the sun appears to plunge nightly from western coastal regions. The solar aspect of Kronos are therefore remarkable.


Janus (after whom the month of January gets its name) was one of the typically Roman gods, who we generally remember as being the one with two faces, ‘looking forwards and backwards in time’. Like with the Greek hearth goddess Hestia, it was customary to invoke Janus first at religious rites of other Roman gods. Macrobius has the following to say:

” … Some claim that Janus is shown to be the sun and has his two-fold nature because both heavenly doorways are in his power, as he opens the day by rising and closes it by setting; and further that when some god’s rite is being celebrated, he is called upon first so that he might open the way to the god to whom the sacrifice is being made, as though sending suppliants’ prayers on to the gods through his own gateways. Hence, too, his likeness is commonly represented keeping the number 300 in its right hand and 65 in its left, to indicate the measure of the year, which is the sun’s chief function… ” (Saturnalia, Book 1, 9.9-9.10, trans. Kaster, Loeb Classical Library)

Macrobius is able to associate Janus with both Diana (the ‘lunar’ huntress whose brother was ‘solar’ Apollo, and who was known to the Greeks as both Artemis and Hecate, among other names) and Juno, wife of Jupiter and chief goddess (known to the Greeks as the scheming and jealous Hera, consort of Zeus). Indeed ‘Janus’ and ‘Juno’ have the appearance of a ‘matrimonial’ or ‘gender-twin’ god-pair similar to, for example Freyr and Freyja. Although Artemis/Diana is depicted as a ‘virgin’ goddess, this status is mystically equated with maximum sexual fertility potential, and Macrobius explains that Diana was considered a feminine part of the god, whose dual-nature is so apparent, arguing that ‘Diana’ is ‘Ianus’ with a super-added ‘D’. As the visible faces of the Roman and Greek gods were in reality fronts or ‘masks’ of their deeper mysteries, he may well be correct.

Janus was therefore a god of gateways and openings, as well as a somewhat daemonic entity, who – somewhat like Mercury or Hermes – carried messages from the mundane to the divine. The gates of the god’s temple were propped open in times of war, and the public reason for this was made into a story involving an early war between the Romans and the Sabines when Janus was said to have mysteriously opened Rome’s closed gate, and sent a torrent of boiling water at the Sabines from his temple, saving the city. Deeper reasons may link to the cult of the afterlife in which both Saturn and Janus played a part – the doors were probably opened to admit souls of dead warriors to the precincts of the god. The god’s statuary attributes (apart from his two faces) were the rod and the key, denoting measurement (?of lives, time, space) and the key (signifying the unlocking of thresholds). It was widely believed that worship of the god preceded the establishment of Rome itself, making Janus one of the rare and antique indigenous gods not borrowed from the Greeks. His cult is shrouded in a good deal of mystery, and his attributes seem to link him closely to Kronos/Saturn, who he may have been the original indigenous version of.


Mars and/or Quirinus were – like Janus – aspects of an indigenous Sabine-Etruscan-Latin deity whose veneration appears to have preceded the influence of the Greeks. His Greek counterpart, Ares, was not equivalent – Mars was more of a chthonic deity of abundance-through-strife, whereas Ares was a colder divinity representing violence. Implicit in the idea of Mars was symbolic struggle of nature, and the renewal offered by death. He was therefore closer in conception to Ares’ brother, Apollo, who was identical in practical respects to the Greek solar god, Helios: the sun burns, and the sun renews.

The custom of opening the doors of the temple of Janus in times of war seems to link him to the cult of Mars as a war-god. In fact, Janus was also known as Janus Quirinus suggesting a syncresis. Quirinus was also cited as the deified ancestor-founder of Rome: Romulus. The priest of Quirinus (the Flamen Quirinalis) presided over a number of ancient chthonic-ancestor cult practices, most important of which were the Larentalia (23rd December – associated with the Saturnalia, no less) the late-April celebration of vegetative growth of crops called Robigalia (Robigus was evidently a jealous chthonic ancestral spirit who craved the goodness of grain, and was credited with causing soot and ergot etc) and the Consualia Aestiva in August after harvest was gathered (in honor of Consus, guardian of grain stores). ‘Larentia‘ was a consort of ‘Romulus’ in Rome’s founding myths – she was the ‘Mater Larum’ or guardian of ancestral souls: again an incarnation of the Great Goddess, just as her consort (Quirinus) is the founding male part of the equation. The god Portunus was also worshipped as a protector of storehouses and gateways, indicating he was somehow related to both Quirinus and Janus.

‘Mars Quirinus’ was the god’s epithet in times of peace, and ‘Mars Gradivas’ in times of war, at least in Republican times when he used to be part of the early ‘Capitoline Triad’ of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus. This was why the principle Flamens (high priests) of the state religion were the Flamen Dialis, Flamen Martialis and Flamen Quirinalis. The ‘Triad’ (based on an older Celtic-style triune deity) eventually changed to Jupiter, Minerva and Juno – reflecting, perhaps, Greek religious tastes.


Poseidon is considered to have been the prime deity of the Mycenaean civilisation from which classical Greek civilisation developed. Neptune was his Roman counterpart, an Italic god of not just the sea but lakes and rivers, who was generally conflated with Greek Poseidon by the 4thC BCE. As the ‘brother’ of Zeus he ruled over the earth and the waters which flowed on and through it. Their other brother, Hades, ruled the cthonic underworld, and Zeus was master of the sky and heavens. This in itself a ‘solar’ triform god hypostasis.

As well as being associated with the waters (and their sculpting force upon the land, believed to include earthquakes) Poseidon/Neptune was the main god associated with horses, both legendary and mundane. These animals were strongly associated with solar mythology, and the sun was depicted as being conveyed in a four-horse quadriga chariot. Waves are figuratively depicted as white horses. The celtic peoples believed the horse would carry you to the otherworld, and their late Iron Age coinage uses the image of the horse and the sun more than any other symbolism.

The Roman god Portunus (mentioned above) was also related to Neptune, in that he was appealed to in order to ensure naval victory, and was a god of ports, harbours and gateways. The sea or water represented a ‘crossing over’ to ancient minds – the sun disappeared into it, and death was assured to those who stayed submerged in it. There might possibly be an older (possibly even non-italic) shared origin for Portunus and Neptune, and they share names with similar sounds. The Irish mythological character Nechtain (mentioned in Dindsenchas as husband of Bóand) might be a celtic version of Neptune (with the P<>Q/K sound transfer) – his magical well in his palace of Síd Nechtain was the mystical source of the River Boyne (Bóand). Other linguistic aspects of note that link the name to horses and water are the ‘Neck’ spirits of north European folklore, otherwise known as ‘water horses’ or ‘kelpies’.


The epiphanic Dionysus was an important solar god who represented the aspect of sun-driven vegetative growth and in particular, the ecstasy-inducing produce of the vine. He was a central figure of a number of important mystery cults, and was known to the Romans under one of his other names – Bakkhos or Bacchus. His cult may have originated further north in Europe or the Near East, and in Thrace he was known as Sabazios, and shared aspects of Apollo. In fact, at Delphi in Greece (Hellas) he sat in for Apollo once a year when the sun god was deemed to be taking a holiday among the noble barbarians of Hyperborea, somewhere beyond the river Eridanus, site of an infamous mythological accident suffered by the chariot of Helios, whose son Phaeton took it on an ill-starred joyride. Like the sun, Dionysus was portrayed as coming from the east, leading some to posit that he had eastern origins, but this is not necessarily the case. The cult of Dionysos was not just an orgiastic celebration of fertility, but a mystical expression of the connection between death and new life. Aspects of it were borrowed into the mythology of christianity – for instance, the motif of death and rebirth comes from the mythology of Dionysus, particularly in the Orphic mysteries. Unlike the ‘hero’ gods of Greek, Roman and Thracian religion who were depicted armed with weapons, Dionysus flourished the thyrsus – a stave topped with a pine cone, deliberately suggestive of the phallus. His mythical retinue consisted of ‘wise Silenus’, the ithyphallic Satyrs and the crazed retinue of the female maenads.

Dionysus was not just a god, but a ‘prophet’ through whom the mysteries of life and death could be addressed periodically. He was somewhat unobtainable, except through throwing oneself into the wild aspects of his rites. Temples dedicated to him were a late feature of the Roman empire, and in Greece his most significant structures were his open air theatres.


The ‘purest’ or most overt solar god was Apollo, who might be thought of as the youthful god of new dawn. Often cultically portrayed with a bow, arrows and lyre (perhaps signifying the rays of the rising sun), he was also depicted with his chthonic adversary, the serpent Python, which his mythology describes him slaying. This Apollonian myth is also echoed in the myths of semi-mortal Herakles/Hercules who meets the serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides, while seeking the golden apples of immortality. The symbolism was the conquest of death, and it is easy to see the parallels with Dionysus. Along with the Thracian Sabazios, Hercules, Apollo and Dionysus appear to have resonated with the Celts much more than other gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons, and influenced their imagery and religious practices during the syncretic eras between the 3rdC BCE and 3rdC CE.  Unlike Dionysus, Apollo’s was generally seen as a more stable and providential presence. His widespread presence in syncretic-era Celtic shrines attests to the importance of the solar godhead in these cultures.

A note on Hades/Pluto:

Hiding in the shady realms of the Greco-Roman underworld of the dead, it is hard to consider Hades as a ‘solar’ deity, yet the darkness – an inverted state of the sun’s light is itself an aspect of that light. It is therefore important to consider Hades a part of the ‘solar’ god-hypostasis. Indeed, to the Greeks he was part of the triform Olympian brotherhood of Zeus-Poseidon-Hades who ruled over the earth’s aspects: Zeus had the skies and heavens, Poseidon the earth and waters, and Hades the underworld realms.

The Atlantic solar god:

In Irish mythology, the ‘sea’ god Manannán mac Lir shows all of the characteristics of a sun-god. From his ‘epiphanic’ arrivals bearing gifts and challenges in tales such as Echtra Cormaic maic Airt (‘The Deeds of Cormac, son of Art’) to his mysterious psychopompic departures to the Otherworld in the poem Immram Brain maic Febail (‘Voyage of Bran, son of Febhal’), he typifies the solar archetypes which informed the worship of Europe’s ancient solar god-hypostasis. To the Atlantic Celts, the sun’s visible disappearance far away into the great western ocean maintained an implied marine aspect to their sun-god, who being born again every morning in the east, was also god of the Otherworld. Manannán seems to incorporate multiple aspects of the Mediterranean deities under one guise – Zeus, Poseidon, Hades and Apollo in particular. It is likely that Manannán was an elegant expression of (were it not for the Goddess) monotheistic godhood behind Ireland’s apparently rapid transit from paganism to being at the cutting edge of the medieval Christian world.

Of course, ‘Manannán’ was only one name or epithet for the solar god among the Irish celts. and the character appears under other guises across Europe. In fact Manannán’s character in his Irish legends is explicitly that of a shape-shifter and master of disguise. His wizardly abilities identify him with similar god-like characters such as Merlin and Wodan/Odin, as I have discussed previously. To the warlike Iron Age celts he was best-known as ‘Belenos‘ – the god to whom warriors pledged their lives in battle, and who promised them reincarnation. Under the epithet ‘Cernunnos‘, he was depicted as a fighting fertility god, with imagery redolent of the battling, rutting beast. Called ‘Esus‘ he was cultified as the branch-cutting god – another warlike image symbolic of killing, typical to the La Téne age, and a possible link to the Norse ‘Aesir’. Called ‘Teutates’ or ‘Andraste’ he was signified as a tribal ancestor-originator. As ‘Taranis‘, he was the energising regenerator whose ‘wheel’ image was an overt symbol of the sun which promised regeneration to come. Under christianity he became represented as the warrior-angel St Michael, Christianised as ‘Malo‘, ‘Mel’ or a multitude of other saints, and demonised as any number of legendary pseudo-historic evil kings, giants, goblins and devils. Due to the weaving of Roman paganism into continental and British celtic cultures, he was deeply buried in layers of syncretism, of which christianity was the most recent incarnation. Whatever guise the god took, he kept his most complete and fascinating literary and mythological identity in Ireland’s Manannán: the Atlantic otherworld solar god.

The Celtic Mysteries?

So-called ‘mystery religions’ were at the core of paganism in ancient Europe. Many ‘gods’ were used to illustrate the fundamental ideas of commonly-shared philosophies, ideals and empirical observations of nature and existence among ancient Europeans. Their ‘mysteries’ were a method of communicating the dynamic interplay of such forces through the participation of suppliants in story, ritual, drama and ceremony, often through means of ‘initiation’, usually followed by ongoing participation. This communicated higher knowledge and understanding in an intimate personal manner which could not ordinarily be achieved simply by listening to or reading stories. As many of these mystery religions existed within the Hellenic and Roman polities of Europe, North Africa and the Near East we know at least a little about them from archaeology, art and literature which has survived from the Iron Age, Classical and Late Classical eras (8thC BCE to 5thC CE). Because the exact nature of the mysteries was secretive, we are often left guessing about exact details of ritual and ideology. However, we have even less information about the indigenous mystery religions among the Atlantic Europeans or ‘Celts’ whose independent cultural direction was largely crushed or assimilated by the Roman Republic and Empire between the 2ndC BCE and 2ndC CE.

To be an ‘initiate’ in these old European mysteries usually involved submitting oneself to its priests or guardians at a site sacred to the cult. Once there, one would subsume one’s mundane identity into that of an initiate and participate in a number of dramatic performances designed to illustrate the principles of the cult in an atmosphere of mystery, awe and (eventually) revelatory ecstasy. The initiations would be designed to impress a set of ideas onto the initiate which would have a profound influence upon their worldview, while leaving them with questions only partly answered by the immediate experience in order to encourage further participation in the cult, or encourage dialectic philosophical exegesis of the epiphany the initiate had experienced. At the height of their popularity, initiates would come from nearly every walk of life, from slaves up to Emperors and Kings. The great Augustus himself – inheritor of Julius Caesar’s posthumously-declared empire took a particular interest in the mysteries of Eleusis which, as we shall see in the light of Caesar’s commentaries on Celtic religion, is somwhat interesting.

The mysteries were generally secretive, so apart from external observations and some archaeological paraphernalia and written ephemera, we actually have a very limited idea of what they involved or exactly what they were trying to communicate. We don’t know exactly what happened at the convocations of the various mystery cults at the various stages in their existence, but we do now that they had an influential effect upon the societies they operated in.

Literary evidence for ‘Celtic Mysteries’?

After Julius Caesar had completed the task of conquering Gaul, it is apparent that he was keen to portray it an as attempt to civilise a barbarian nation in the grips of a powerful, savage and mysterious religious cult, led by a sect of hierophants called Druids who he had suppressed. He further claimed Gauls said they were descended from a cthonic deity he called ‘Dis Pater’, and that they worshipped ‘Mercury’ (the conductor of departed souls, prime divine Daimôn and god of trade) above their other gods, who he again equated ‘interpretatio romanum’ (See: De Bello Gallico, Book 6). Although he professed no indication of a mystery religion, he certainly alluded to the secretive nature of what was taught by the Druids, who committed none of their teachings to writing, in consequence of which their training was a dedicated and laborious process lasting many years. Nevertheless, he indicates that this instruction was common to the youth of Gaulish society, which may imply an aspect of their religion as a mystery cult with a high degree of social organisation:

“… The Druids do not go to war, nor pay tribute together with the rest; they have an exemption from military service and a dispensation in all matters. Induced by such great advantages, many embrace this profession of their own accord, and are sent to it by their parents and relations. They are said there to learn by heart a great number of verses; accordingly some remain in the course of training twenty years. Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing, though in almost all other matters, in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters. That practice they seem to me to have adopted for two reasons; because they neither desire their doctrines to be divulged among the mass of the people, nor those who learn, to devote themselves the less to the efforts of memory, relying on writing; since it generally occurs to most men, that, in their dependence on writing, they relax their diligence in learning thoroughly, and their employment of the memory. They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valor, the fear of death being disregarded. They likewise discuss and impart to the youth many things respecting the stars and their motion, respecting the extent of the world and of our earth, respecting the nature of things, respecting the power and the majesty of the immortal gods…” (Book 6, Ch. 14; Trans. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn)

It is hard to determine from Caesar’s account if Druidism was indeed a ‘mystery cult’ in the Greek or Roman sense, or a highly advanced system of education and cultural indoctrination. Caesar talks of ‘the Gauls’ as a unified whole, and many of them certainly unified to fight him in the 1stC BCE. However, Celtic culture seems to have been historically riven and even driven by intertribal warfare so we must be cautious about his opinions. What does strike me as relevant to the Mediterranean mystery cults is the pre-eminence he accords to cthonic and psychopompic deities and the idea of reincarnation. This suggests Gaulish/Celtic religion shared similarities with the Greek mysteries, and could conceivably have shared common origin with them.

Greek and Roman attitudes to Barbarian culture and The Mysteries:

The first Roman Emperor, Augustus (ruled 27BCE-CE14), is notable for his eventual establishment of an internally stable Roman home province which would remain stable for almost 200 years. He took the reigns from his murdered adoptive ‘uncle’ Julius Caesar, who had expanded the Republic’s territories and cultural influence from Celtic Gaul to Egypt. Subsequent years would see consolidation of Roman influence over Germania west of the Rhine, the Balkan regions of Pannonia and Moesia, as well as Macedonia and Thrace. This, to the Romans, constituted a matter of great pride as they had conquered the greater continental portion of western Europe whose people were known to the Greeks and Romans as ‘barbarians’: a people at once considered to be backward, unsophisticated, frighteningly violent, and yet still mysterious.

Augustus (Octavian) is notable as being the first Roman leader recorded to have had himself initiated into the Mysteries of Eleusis, whose cult centre was situated near Athens, and was considered the beating heart of Greek religious culture. He was also notable for his attempts to form alliances with British Belgic Celtic leaders, including Tasciovanus of the Catuvellauni and his son and succesor, Cunobelinos (Kymbelinus). Tasciovanus was on such good terms with the Roman Emperor that he sent his sons to be fostered and educated in Rome. Consequently the coins these British monarchs minted show some interesting Romanised features which suggest they themselves were initiates of Eleusis: specifically where they repeatedly display the icon of Demeter and the Mysteries – the ear of wheat or barley:

Coin of Cunobellinus of the Catuvellauni/Trinovantes 1stC AD

Coin of Cunobellinus of the Catuvellauni/Trinovantes 1stC AD

Stater of Tasciovanus demonstrating Eleusinian symbolism -influenced by Augustus?

Stater of Tasciovanus demonstrating Eleusinian symbolism – influenced by Augustus?

Of course, the interest of these Belgic leaders in the Greek mysteries would have been a strong statement of alliance with the worldview of Augustus and his successors. For Augustus himself, it is entirely possible that his own devotion to the Eleusinian Mysteries was designed to better understand the religious worldview of the ‘barbarians’, which the Greeks appeared to have had civilised, and who he was continuing to conquer or gain as allies for his new Empire. The implication might be that the new Emperor felt he could find common religious origin with his newly conquered peoples and allies. The Greeks certainly believed the mysteries to have originated among the barbarians, but to have been civilised in Attica.

Of course, the exposure of Celtic peoples to a cult which dealt with the mysteries of death was far greater than that experienced within the Roman culture. Caesar blamed the apparent fearlessness of Gaulish warriors on a firm belief in reincarnation, indoctrinated into them by the Druids (supposedly originating in Britain), and his successors would spend a good deal of time, money and human lives in eradicating this movement. The origins of it are to be found hundreds of years further back in time, perhaps when the great Celtic warbands formed and stamped their mark on Europe and the Near East from the start of the ‘La Téne’ period. This was the ‘Belgic’ cult which venerated the solar god Belenos as receiver of the dead and lord of the Otherworld. He was equivalent to Apollo, whose most significant shrine at Delphi was famously assaulted (and possibly thoroughly pillaged) by a Gaulish army in 279BCE.

Belenos was the god who promoted growth and decay – the sun who grows vegetation and at the same time hastens putrefaction of the dead. His domain included the lands of the daytime as well as the lands beyond the setting sun – the realm of the Celtic dead. Like the ancient Mars-Quirinus he was a god of war and chthonic fertility. Like Apollo he was a conqueror of serpentine decay and giver of oracles. Like his later development as Wodan/Odin, he was a god of battle-fury and madness – a shaper of madness into purposeful action, which is in fact the political aim of warfare. The mysteries of Belenos were never attested, but the evidence that they existed is reasonably compelling from the opinions of Caesar and the god’s replacement by Apollo in the post-Romanised era at Romanised cult-sites among the Gauls, Britons, Iberians and Germans and in the Balkans.

The imagery of this religion could be found inscribed on the coins and monuments of the Celts, although the latter ocurred after the advent of syncretism post-Romanisation. It is evident on the designs and decorations on personal ornaments and weaponry, and on spectacular artefacts such as the Gundestrup cauldron.

Gebeleizis or Beleizis? Belenos among the Dacians

In one of the earliest accounts of Eastern Europe’s old gods, Herodotus (Histories Book IV, Chapters 93–96 – 5thC BCE) tells us that the Eastern, Danubian tribes of the Getae (also later known to the Romans as the Dacians – inhabiting what is now modern Romania), believed in reincarnation and worshipped a god called Zalmoxis or Salmoxis. Most standard translations into English come from manuscripts in which he appears to state that some of the Getae also called Zalmoxis by the name Gebeleizis’. For example:

93the Getae are the bravest of the Thracians and the most just. 94. They believe they are immortal in the following sense: they think they do not die and that the one who dies joins Zalmoxis, a divine being; some call this same divine being Gebeleizis. Every four years, they send a messenger to Zalmoxis, who is chosen by chance. They ask him to tell Zalmoxis what they want on that occasion. The mission is performed in the following way: men standing there for that purpose hold three spears; other people take the one who is sent to Zalmoxis by his hands and feet and fling him in the air on the spears. If he dies pierced, they think that the divinity is going to help them; if he does not die, it is he who is accused and they declare that he is a bad person. And, after he has been charged, they send another one. The messenger is told the requests while he is still alive. The same Thracians, on other occasions, when he thunders and lightens, shoot with arrows up in the air against the sky and menace the divinity because they think there is no god other than their own…

The alternative name for their chief afterlife-god given by Herodotus is supposed to be ‘Gebeleizis’, and it appears this way in most of the surviving manuscripts of the Histories, which were originally written in Greek. However, my attention was recently drawn to an opinion expressed by the late Prof Rhys Carpenter in his essay The Cult of the Sleeping Bear (1946), that the original word used by Herodotus was ‘Beleizis’ – the ‘ge-‘ being an ‘italicising’ part of the preceding word. In the most complete and earliest source manuscripts (known as A and B to Herodotus scholars) the ‘Ge’ is apparently absent! This opens up a whole new spectrum of possibilities: It is generally accepted that the use of ‘-zis’ in ther terminus of the name is just the Indo-European word for ‘god’, as seen in the words ‘Zeus’ and ‘Deus’. This means that (assuming both Rhys Carpenter and Herodotus were correct) that the god Thracian god Zalmoxis was known to some of the 5thC BCE Getae as ‘Belei’ or ‘Beli’ – in other words, Belenos! This would make it one of the earliest references to the god whose name was adopted by the European Celtic peoples later calling themselves ‘Belgae’.

This passage by Herodotus (dealing with the incursion upon ‘Scythia’ and Greece by the Persian Empire) has stimulated quite a lot of interest, as little is known about the actual religions of the East European peoples before Romanisation and Christianisation. The peoples of Eastern Europe were generally identified by Greeks such as Herodotus as ‘barbarians’ or more specifically as ‘Thracians’ (the most numerous culture, and that bordering Greece/Macedonia directly). By the 4th/3rdC BCE, however, Thrace, Dacia (northern Thrace) and Illyria had become a contributing part of the cultural movement which we identify further west as ‘Celtic’, albeit with an ‘Eastern’ slant: Celticists and archaeologists might, for example, recognise the significance of both the belief in reincarnation (mentioned by Julius Caesar 400 years later) and the sacrificial ritual of sending a man to the Otherworld through death, to which the Iron Age phenomenon of ‘bog bodies’ (found in northern and western Europe) seem also to attest.

The question now turns to the Thracian Salmoxis of whom Herodotus had more to say (trans. Godley):

…I understand from the Greeks who live beside the Hellespont and Pontus, that this Salmoxis was a man who was once a slave in Samos, his master being Pythagoras son of Mnesarchus; then, after being freed and gaining great wealth, he returned to his own country. Now the Thracians were a poor and backward people, but this Salmoxis knew Ionian ways and a more advanced way of life than the Thracian; for he had consorted with Greeks, and moreover with one of the greatest Greek teachers, Pythagoras; Therefore he made a hall, where he entertained and fed the leaders among his countrymen, and taught them that neither he nor his guests nor any of their descendants would ever die, but that they would go to a place where they would live forever and have all good things. While he was doing as I have said and teaching this doctrine, he was meanwhile making an underground chamber. When this was finished, he vanished from the sight of the Thracians, and went down into the underground chamber, where he lived for three years, while the Thracians wished him back and mourned him for dead; then in the fourth year he appeared to the Thracians, and thus they came to believe what Salmoxis had told them. Such is the Greek story about him…

The text – following on from his account of the Getae and (Ge)Beleizis – appears to give Salmoxis a ‘euhemerized’ slant, even portraying him as a pupil of Pythagoras. This, however, must be examined from the perspective that Herodotus was a Greek (and therefore thought the Greeks to be the true originators of all philosophical doctrines worth their salt) and Pythagoras was legendary for his doctrine of metempsychosis. For the same reason, it was later supposed that Gaulish druids must also have had commerce with Pythagoras. The most important feature of the account (no doubt a garbled understanding of the true Thracian doctrines) is the association of Salmoxis with an underworld feast-hall for the dead and a periodicity of 4 years. The story is even somewhat similar to the later tales in the Christian bible about Jesus’ last supper and his resurrection. The Norse Valhalla also springs to mind, as do the fairy tales of the British and Irish Isles where people are entertained in great underground halls by the wise Fair Folk…

Another consideration for ‘Gebelezius’ is that the name incorporates the Celtic word for the horse – variously written as ‘Gebel’, ‘Cabbyl’, or ‘Capal’ and in a number of other ways. The word ‘Cavalier’ is derived from this Indo-European root-word.


The Gaesatae

The Gaesatae were a Celtic mercenary force derived from ‘about the Alps and on to the Rhone’ (i.e. – Transalpine Gaul) who were recorded as joining the combined armies of Cisalpine Gauls including the Boii, Taurisci and Insubres in an attempted attack on the Roman Republic in the late stages of the 3rdC BCE. Like the other Celtic ‘tribes’ seen in the post-4thC BCE Europe (during the ‘La-Téne’ material culture period) they were a group based around military exploits rather than of familial and geo-cultural origins. Of particular interest was their tendency (like the later Norse Berserkr warriors) to go into battle naked, except for their weapons and shields. This tactic – also noted to be practised by the Galatians and other factions of central European Celts following the 4th/3rdC expansion. It was likely to have allowed them to be highly mobile, to demonstrate their apparent bravery (or fanaticism) to their enemies, and no doubt to intimidate with their magnificent physiques – a point not lost upon Greek historian Polybius. The image of the naked Gaesatae or Galatian warrior has therefore been a romantic and enduring one, not in the least because of the powerful statuary image of a dying Gaulish warrior, naked except for his neck torc, that survives from ancient Rome – possibly being a copy of a Hellenistic original from the 3rdC BCE.

The 'Dying Gaul' or 'Dying Galatian' from the Capitoline Museum.

The ‘Dying Gaul’ or ‘Dying Galatian’ from the Capitoline Museum.

Although linked to the 3rdC BCE Gaulish campaigns against the crumbling Macedonian Empire, the image of the ‘Dying Gaul’ may in fact derive from the Battle of Telamon of 225BCE, fought between the Romans and invading factions of federated Celtic tribes in northern Italy. The Greco-Roman historian Polybius (Histories 2:28 2ndC BCE) recalled the fighting style of the Gaesatae during this event:

“… The Celts had stationed the Alpine tribe of the Gaesatae to face their enemies on the rear, and behind them the Insubres; on their front they had placed the Taurisci, and the Cispadane tribe of the Boii, facing the legions of Gaius. Their waggons and chariots they placed on the extremity of either wing, while the booty they massed upon one of the hills that skirted the road, under the protection of a guard. The army of the Celts was thus double-faced, and their mode of marshalling their forces was effective as well as calculated to inspire terror. The Insubres and Boii were clothed in their breeches and light cloaks; but the Gaesatae from vanity and bravado threw these garments away, and fell in in front of the army naked, with nothing but their arms; believing that, as the ground was in parts encumbered with brambles, which might possibly catch in their clothes and impede the use of their weapons, they would be more effective in this state. At first the only actual fighting was that for the possession of the hill: and the numbers of the cavalry, from all three armies, that had joined in the struggle made it a conspicuous sight to all. In the midst of it the Consul Gaius fell, fighting with reckless bravery in the thick of the battle, and his head was brought to the king of the Celts. The Roman cavalry, however, continued the struggle with spirit, and finally won the position and overpowered their opponents. Then the foot also came to close quarters…”

The Romans had good cause to worry about this army – not in the least because of the success of the Celts in the Balkans, Macedonia, Greece and Anatolia within the last 100 years, but perhaps more so because of the successful attack on Rome by Brennus of the Senones during the 4thC BCE, and the support of Celtic tribes which did so much for Hannibal’s success in the Punic Wars. The Gaulish warbands had a reputation for military fanaticism and bravery born from their religious ideologies. The naked and fearsome Gaesatae, perhaps more prepared for man-to-man combat, were – however – ultimately no match for the javelins, arrows and darts that rained down upon them at Telamon, and ultimately fell before this onslaught. Just like in 279BCE their ‘king’ or leader (who had, like his men, no doubt pledged his life to the Otherworld Lord, Belenos) committed suicide rather than face capture or defeat. Rome’s eventual success at the battle marked the watershed of Celtic hegemony in northern Italy and the Balkans and would lead to a period of rapid extension of Roman influence towards the East, during which Celtic tribes would more frequently find their fortunes fighting on the winning side as auxiliaries. As Rome became more powerful and wealthy, the Celtic warrior followed the gold, and his religious outlook became Romanised…

Thoughts on the Gaesatae:

Polybius – like other Greek and Roman authors before and after him – commented upon the proud nature of the Celtic warrior in order to both honour them as enemies, but also to magnify the Roman soldiers who overcame the worthy adversary. The Gaesatae were evidently not a tribal ethnic group, but – like the Scoridisci and other central and ‘Belgic’ groups – a ‘fighting nation’ drawn from diverse backgrounds. This must have been a particular ‘La Téne’ era phenomenon: Warband groups had attracted young males (and females) from the 4thC BCE, to participate in such exploits as the Punic Wars, the invasion of Rome led by Brennus of the Senones, and the invasions of the Balkans, Macedonia, Greece and Anatolia by the combined armies of the 3rdC BCE. These had specific impacts upon the outlook and fighting style of European barbarian (Celtic) warriors and their subsequent cultural evolutions, not in the least due to the cash injections that their success provided to specific areas of industry:

1. The promotion of a warrior cult which saw death as a brief transition through the Otherworld, or a permanent place in the Celtic notion of ‘Elysium’ as a future ‘hero-helper’ of the people. This promoted a fearlessness and fanaticism which gave these warriors a widespread reputation without which the Roman Republic and Empire (who employed them as mercenaries and allies) would not have succeeded.

2. The stimulation of a weapons and armour industry and tradition within the Balkans and Eastern Europe (e.g. – chainmail and the longsword) which would give birth to the future armoury traditions of the middle ages, supplying technology to both Europe and the East.

3. The idea of the highly-mobile, rapid-response infantry and cavalry army created from across tribal boundaries. These warbands – like the legendary Irish Fianna – provided Celtic society with an outlet for their warlike ways which could remove aggression and conflict from home-soil and export it to bring back wealth and plunder. The Roman Empire thrived upon its ability to deploy legions of Celts and other similarly-motivated foreigners to do their ‘dirty-work’ and relied upon the military developments of Celtic Europe between the 5th and 1stC BCE in determining the format of its conquering armies. In a way, it is possible to consider that the Roman legions took their lead (as well as many of their men) from the militarist fanaticism of the Celtic world.

4. The wealth from the 4th and 3rdC BCE Celtic warband conquests was a potent stimulus to culture and trade, as well as migration and mobility of cultural groups. The ‘Scoridisci’ culture of Eastern Europe was a remnant of the 3rdC BCE wars and expansions, as was the Galatae Celtic groups in Anatolia (modern Turkey). The Belgae of northern Europe, the Volcae-Tectosages, and the Boii people of northern Europe and Cisalpine Gaul were all important trans-ethnic groups who had cultural origins in such martial exploits during the La-Téne period.

The supposed ethnic-tribal group (according to the Romans) of northern Europe known as the ‘Belgae’ were almost certainly a part of this movement which blurred ethnic and linguistic boundaries, and whose cultural influence extended from west of the Rhine to the Atlantic and the British Isles. However, these fell into decline after the 1stC CE following on from the Roman conquests, their identities dissolving with Romanisation, and their warlike culture (like that of the Scottish Highlanders after the 18thC) being employed in the imperial army in a cunning piece of cultural engineering. However, there is no reason to suspect that the culture did not continue beyond the limits of Roman influence in Scandinavia, Germany, northern Britain and Ireland. Due to linguistic and other reasons, the Romans did not identify these peoples with the potent ‘Gaulish’ Celts and their fanatical druid-led religious system. There are many reasons to suspect that they held the same religious and cultural views, however – the powerful image posed by the naked Viking Era Odinist Berserker being one such reason, along with the many parallels I have already discussed.


Hallucinosis, battle-fury and oracles of the divine

When the Gaulish warlord Brennus led his army through the Greek defences at Thermopylae and into a full-on assault on Delphi in 279BC, he was attacking perhaps the most important and wealthy religious centre of ancient Greece, notable for its oracular priestesses who apparently communed with the solar god Apollo in order to answer the questions of suppliants. These suppliants came from across the known world and beyond, and bought great wealth and honour to the sanctuary and its city, deep in the Greek highlands. Although there are no surviving contemporary records of this exceptional assault by the Celtic army, the 1stC Gallo-Roman author Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus of the Vocontii of Gallia Narbonensis wrote about the attack some 200 years later in his ‘Phillipic History‘ (of the Macedonian dynasty and its aftermath) which survives in a slightly later Epitome by Roman author, Justin. Given the role of southern Gauls in tne campaign (the Volcae Tectosages Belgic group settled or returned there after the event – reputedly with great wealth) it seems that Pompeius Trogus’ account is worth paying attention to, albeit embellished with the idea that those who attack holy sites pay with their lives… In Book 25 of Justin’s ‘Epitome’, we learn the following:

“… The Gauls, when the land that had produced them was unable, from their excessive increase of population, to contain them, sent out three hundred thousand men, as a sacred spring, to seek new settlements. Of these adventurers part settled in Italy, and took and burnt the city of Rome; and part penetrated into the remotest parts of Illyricum under the direction of a flight of birds (for the Gauls are skilled in augury beyond other nations) making their way amidst great slaughter of the barbarous tribes, and fixed their abode in Pannonia. They were a savage, bold, and warlike nation, and were the first after Hercules (to whom that undertaking procured great admiration for his valour, and a belief in his immortality), to pass the unconquered heights of the Alps, and places uninhabitable from excess of cold. After having subdued the Pannonians, they carried on various wars with their neighbours for many years. Success encouraging them, they betook themselves, in separate bands, some to Greece, and some to Macedonia, laying waste all before them with the sword. Such indeed was the terror of the Gallic name, that even kings, before they were attacked, purchased peace from them with large sums of money…”

He goes on to describe the defeat and death of the Macedonian king Ptolemy Keraunos and his army by the theophorically-titled Celtic warlord, Belgius. Another Gaulish chieftain, Brennus, appears to have then entered the fray to acquire his own share of the wealth of the crumbling Empire’s homelands:

“…In the meantime Brennus, under whose command a part of the Gauls had made an irruption into Greece, having heard of the success of their countrymen, who, under the leadership of Belgius, had defeated the Macedonians, and being indignant that so rich a booty, consisting of the spoils of the east, had been so lightly abandoned, assembled an army of a hundred and fifty thousand foot and fifteen thousand horse, and suddenly invaded Macedonia. As he was laying waste the fields and villages, Sosthenes met him with his army of Macedonians in full array, but being few in number, and in some consternation, they were easily overcome by the more numerous and powerful Gauls; and the defeated Macedonians retiring within the walls of their cities, the victorious Brennus, meeting with no opposition, ravaged the lands throughout the whole of Macedonia. Soon after, as if the spoils of mortals were too mean for him, he turned his thoughts to the temples of the immortal gods, saying, with a profane jest, that “the gods, being rich, ought to be liberal to men.” He suddenly, therefore, directed his march towards Delphi, regarding plunder more than religion, and caring for gold more than for the wrath of the deities, “who,” he said, “stood in no need of riches, as being accustomed rather to bestow them on mortals.”

The temple of Apollo at Delphi is situate on Mount Parnassus, on a rock steep on all sides. A concourse of people, who, collecting from the parts around, through veneration for the majesty of the god, settled on the rock, formed a city there. Thus, not walls, but precipices, not defences formed by the hand, but by nature, protect the temple and the city; so that it is utterly uncertain whether the strength of the place, or the influence of the deity residing in it, attracts more admiration. The central part of the rock falls back in the shape of an amphitheatre; and, in consequence, if ever shouts are raised, or if the noise of trumpets is mingled with them, the sound, from the rocks echoing and re-echoing to one another, is heard many times repeated, and louder than it was made at first. This effect, on those who are ignorant of its cause, and are struck with wonder at it, produces a greater awe of the power of the god. In the winding of the rock, about half way up the hill, there is a small plain, and in it a deep fissure in the ground, which is open for giving oracles; for a cold exhalation, driven upwards by some force, as it were by a wind, produces in the minds of the priestesses a certain madness, and compels them, filled with the influence of the god, to give answers to such as consult them. Hence many rich presents of kings and nations are to be seen there, which, by their magnificence, testify the grateful feelings of those that have paid their vows, and their belief in the oracles given by the deity.

Brennus, when he came within sight of the temple, deliberated for some time, whether he should at once make an attempt upon it, or should allow his soldiers, wearied with their march, a night to refresh themselves. The captains of the Emanus and Thessalorus, who had joined him for a share in the booty, advised that “no delay should be made,” while the enemy were unprovided for defence, and the alarm at their coming still fresh; that in the interval of a night, the courage of the enemy would perhaps revive, and assistance come to them; and that the approaches, which were now open, might be blocked up. But the common soldiers, when, after a long endurance of scarcity, they found a country abounding with wine and other provisions, had dispersed themselves over the fields, rejoicing as much at the plenty as if they had gained a victory, and leaving their standards deserted, wandered about to seize on everything like conquerors. This conduct gave some respite to the Delphians. At the first report that the Gauls were approaching, the countrypeople are said to have been prohibited by the oracle from carrying away their corn and wine from their houses. The salutariness of this prohibition was not understood, until, through this abundance of wine and other provisions being thrown in the way of the Gauls, as a stop to their progress, reinforcements from their neighbours had time to collect. The Delphians, accordingly, supported by the strength of their allies, secured their city before the Gauls, who clung to the wine-skins, on which they had seized, could be recalled to their standards. Brennus had sixty-five thousand infantry, selected from his whole army; of the Delphians there were not more than four thousand; in utter contempt of whom, Brennus, to rouse the courage of his men, pointed to the vast quantity of spoil before them, declaring that the statues, and four-horse chariots, of which a great number were visible at a distance, were made of solid gold, and would prove greater prices when they came to be weighed than they were in appearance.

The Gauls, animated by these assertions, and disordered, at the same time, with the wine which they had drunk the day before, rushed to battle without any fear of danger. The Delphians, on the other hand, placing more confidence in the god than in their own strength, resisted the enemy with contempt, and, from the top of the hill, repelled the Gauls as they climbed up, partly with pieces of rock, and partly with their weapons. Amidst this contest between the two, the priests of all the temples, as well as the priestesses themselves, with their hair loose, and with their decorations and fillets, rushed, trembling and frantic, into the front ranks of the combatants, exclaiming that “the god was come; that they had seen him leap down into his temple through the opening roof; that, while they were all humbly imploring aid of the deity, a youth of extraordinary beauty, far above that of mortals, and two armed virgins, coming from the neighbouring temples of Diana and Minerva, met them; that they had not only perceived them with their eyes, but had heard also the sound of a bow and the rattling of arms;” and they therefore conjured them with the strongest entreaties, “not to delay, when the gods were leading them on, to spread slaughter among the enemy, and to share the victory with the powers of heaven.” Incited by these exhortations, they all rushed eagerly to the field of battle, where they themselves also soon perceived the presence of the divinity; for a part of the mountain, broken off by an earthquake, overwhelmed a host of the Gauls and some of the densest bodies of the enemy were scattered abroad, not without wounds, and fell to the earth. A tempest then followed, which destroyed, with hail and cold, those that were suffering from bodily injuries. The general Brennus himself, unable to endure the pain of his wounds, ended his life with his dagger. The other general, after punishing the advisers of the war, made off from Greece with all expedition… “

Pausanias (Description of Greece, 2ndC CE) added greater detail to his own version of the story, claiming that the disorder that led to the apparent defeat of Brennus and his army was caused by an apparent outbreak of madness within the Gaulish camp which caused them to fight among themselves…

“… At the beginning of the fight the Gauls offered a spirited resistance, especially the company attached to Brennus, which was composed of the tallest and bravest of the Gauls, and that though they were shot at from all sides, and no less distressed by the frost, especially the wounded men. But when Brennus himself was wounded, he was carried fainting from the battle, and the barbarians, harassed on all sides by the Greeks, fell back reluctantly, putting to the sword those who, disabled by wounds or sickness, could not go with them.

They encamped where night overtook them in their retreat, and during the night there fell on them a “panic.” For causeless terrors are said to come from the god Pan. It was when evening was turning to night that the confusion fell on the army, and at first only a few became mad, and these imagined that they heard the trampling of horses at a gallop, and the attack of advancing enemies; but after a little time the delusion spread to all.

So rushing to arms they divided into two parties, killing and being killed, neither understanding their mother tongue nor recognizing one another’s forms or the shape of their shields. Both parties alike under the present delusion thought that their opponents were Greek, men and armour, and that the language they spoke was Greek, so that a great mutual slaughter was wrought among the Gauls by the madness sent by the god…”


Considering both accounts, we can see that Brennus’ previously highly disciplined and motivated army arrived at Delphi after a string of significant earlier victories, and plundered (or were given) some wine and subsequently fell into disarray, eventually being repelled. Both accounts agree on a certain amount of chaos breaking out, but Pausanias states that the Gauls suffered a mass outbreak of some kind of hallucinatory and delusional psychosis and paranoia. Assuming that he is not speaking figuratively of the weapons of the god Apollo (divine madness) it would appear that the Gauls were affected by the Delphian wine, which was obviously no ordinary wine…

Herba Appolinaris:

Hyoscyamus Niger

Hyoscyamus Niger

It is likely that Brennus’ army (or a significant part of it) fell prey to the effects of wine laced with the mind-bending herb Hyoscyamus Niger, known in English as Henbane, in Spanish as Beleno, and in German as Bilsenkraut. The ancients (eg – Pedanius Dioscorides (De Materia Medica, Book 4, 1stC CE, also Pliny the Elder)  knew it as Herba Appolinaristhe herb of Apollo. In fact, Dioscorides tells us of the many names for it across the known world:

It is also called dioscyamos, pythonion, adamas, adamenon, hypnoticum, emmanes, atomon, or dithiambrion; Pythagoras and Osthenes call it xeleon, Zoroastres, tephonion, the Romans, inanaoentaria, some, Apollinaris, the Magi, rhaponticum, the Egyptians, saptho, the Thuscans, phoebulonga, the Gauls, bilinuntiam, and the Dacians, dieliam.

That Dioscorides gives the Gaulish word as ‘Bilinuntiam’ is often taken as indicative of a concordance between the gods Apollo and the Celtic deity Belenos, and thus it would seem of interest to those who are intrigued by the genesis of the cultural movement of the Celtic ‘tribes’ referred to under the umbrella term Belgae who were somehow linked to the events of 279BC. Dioscorides’ reference to the name ‘pythonian’ for Hyoscyamus also appears to be a reference to this oracular usage, although the myth maintained at Delphi was that priestesses inhaled the exhalations of an ancient vent in the ground, no doubt supposed to conduct the fumes of the decaying corpse of the giant Python killed by Apollo. The fact that Henbane is also known as ‘Stinking Henbane’ due to its unpleasant odour adds to the likelihood that it was responsible for the mind-bending oracles of the Pythia.

Greek tetradrachm depicting Apollo the archer with the Python and the Delphic tripod

Greek tetradrachm depicting Apollo the archer with the Python and the Delphic tripod

Toxicity of Hyoscyamus goes from mild drunkenness to a total confusion, agitation and frenzy, and from there easily into overdosage and death. Obviously, the Pythia (priestesses of the Apollonian oracle) would have been experts at dosing themselves, and must have possessed a standardised preparation which they consumed. It is possible that they could have inhaled the vapours from burning seeds, but given the accounts of Pausanias and Pompeius Trogus/Justin about the chaos that afflicted Brennus’ army in 279BC it is just as likely that they consumed it in wine. Pausanias’ comment that Brennus died of drinking undiluted wine could well be an allusion to this, in fact. Pompeius Trogus states that the leaders at Delphi ordered that the Gauls be given free access to the wine and food of the city, so a deliberate poisoning may well have occurred…


The reputation for bravery and ferocity of some Celtic warriors was commented on by a number of Roman authors – not in the least to allow themselves to congratulate their own soldiers for defeating them. The same ferocity among ‘barbarian’ warriors next receives comment when Christian Europeans encountered the warring aspect of their pagan neighbours from the north during the ‘Viking’ era, this time in the form of the ‘Berserkr‘ (lit. ‘Bear Skin’) warriors. These were men who had dedicated themselves to Odin, their god of battle. The Anglo-Saxon equivalent was Wodan – a name recognisably connected with the Old/Middle English word ‘Wod(e)’, meaning madness or frenzy. It has been suggested that Henbane is a likely drug that could have been used to induce a visionary or frenzied state in Berserkr warriors, and evidence of Henbane seeds among possessions buried in pagan graves (eg – Fyrkat, Denmark) has been used to reinforce this suggestion (although to my mind they could equally have been used for preventing sea-sickness!). Further to this, there was a tradition in Germany and Bohemia of brewing beer using Henbane, suggesting that ‘Pilsener’ was a name fortuitously apprehended by the burghers of Plzen in Bohemia with which to brand their own pseudo-eponymous mass-produced beer in the 19thC, albeit without the ‘Pilsenkraut’ additives. Bohemia, was of course named after the Celtic Boii tribal federation who were undoubtedly involved in the Balkan, Greek and Anatolian Celtic campaigns of the 4th/3rdC BCE.

The 'visionary' man holding a torc and serpent (Gundestrup cauldron - late Celtic iron age). Compare this image to the Delphian tetradrachm above...

The ‘visionary’ man holding a torc and serpent (Gundestrup cauldron – late Celtic iron age). Compare this image to the Delphian tetradrachm above…

Bearing in mind my suggested concordances of the Celtic god Belenos with a number of medieval-era late pagan gods and mythological characters from northern and eastern Europe, the association with Apollo, and similarities between the Pythonian myth and the conception of the pagan Scandinavian universe from the Icelandic Edda texts, a picture begins to emerge of the survival and transformation of an Iron Age visionary religion which reached its height in the 3rdC BCE and which survived Romanisation in the Germanic, Slavic and Scandinavian regions…