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.

Nehalennia – the ‘Cailleach’ of Zeeland?

In 1645, storms ravaging Domberg in the Dutch coastal province of Zeeland uncovered the remains of a significant Roman-era temple sacred to the hitherto unknown goddesss Nehalennia, whose name and image was inscribed on multiple dedicatory altar-stelae. The temple is believed to have served traders at a port who would have had commerce with Gaul and Britain, and also contained dedications to Neptune, Mercury, Hercules and Jupiter, although those to the goddess were by far the most numerous. Her image depicts her wearing a tunic, shoulder mantle and cloak. Her feet are booted and she is almost always accompanied by a small, friendly-looking dog. In common with the many German images of the Matres she is usually (but not always) seated and bears a basket, patera or cornucopia loaded with fruit, suggesting she was considered benevolent.




Although a local goddess, her imagery – like much of that from between the 1st and 4thC CE is obviously culturally Romanised. Her association with fruitfulness and the dog (which appears to be of the Greyhound type) would place her somewhere between the huntress-goddess <Diana-Artemis> and the fertility goddess <Ceres-Demeter>. Her boots and shoulder-mantle render her redolent of the Roman god Mercury, who (as a god of trade, and conductor of souls to the Otherworld) was depicted wearing travelling-wear. Most Roman(ised) goddesses were depicted in sandles. The overall impression is a goddess of fruitfulness, trade and travel – a fact emphasised by a number of images which depict her standing with her foot on the prow of a ship.

Geographic origins of Nehalennia:

One of the question most often asked of her is whether she was of a ‘Celtic’ or ‘Germanic’ origin. This question itself is somewhat complicated by the issue of if there is actually a cultural distinction to made between either, as this was originally a distinction made by Romans on the basis of (i) language and (ii) conquerability! Nonetheless, it is worth noting that Zeeland lies on the Rhine estuary, and that Nehalennia is known to have been depicted as a triple-goddess making her almost indistinguishable from the more common Roman-Era images of the three Matres found in Germany and France. The Matres or Matronae were typically depicted as seated and bearing pateras and cornucopias as well as sheaves of corn etc. A further shrine with altar stones dedicated to the goddess existed near Colijnsplaat in Zeeland, where a large number of altars and statues were dredged out of the Scheldt, the original Roman settlement of Ganuenta having been lost to the sea. A couple of examples of her shrines were also found as far away as Deutz – now part of Cologne, which was a major Roman civitas on the Rhine in Germania Inferior and therefore on the trade route connecting out to Zeeland and the low countries.

Analysis of the theonym:

The name of the goddess has also attracted quite a lot of speculation. As with many names transcribed and transliterated into Roman inscriptions of this era, a degree of caution is required, as the population using the name would have been largely illiterate, so the inscriptional custom of the name may not have been an accurate interpretation. Once inscribed once, it is likely to have been copied and fixed in this form. As occurs in, for example ‘Andraste’, the ‘Ne-‘ of ‘Nehalennia’ sounds like the definite article (‘the’) of the Celtic languages. In Irish and Scots Gaelic, for example, this might be ‘an’ or ‘na’. Manx is ‘yn’ and ‘ny’ respectively. This leaves us with the suffix ‘-halennia’. The terminal ‘-ia’ is typical of a Romanised goddess (‘Dia’), leaving the word ‘-halenn-‘.  My suggestion is that this is an aspirated from of ‘Callen’ – a name familiar to followers of the ubiquitous Cailleach goddess-name of the Irish and British Isles. Modern Irish ‘Caillín’ means ‘girl’ – the word is evocative of that definitive female garment of ancient times: the veil or mantlea notable feature of Nehalennia’s statuary appearance. The Irish town of Enniskillen – another trading centre on a river – is named after a pagan goddess whose name appears the same as that behind the name ‘Nehalennia’! ‘Halenn’ may therefore also be an aspirated version of the name which could also be written as ‘Cathlin’ or ‘Ceithlin’, and the seated-goddess aspect of her would fit with the Indo-European word ‘cath’, from which that sapient sitting beast, the cat, gets its name… I’d quite like to know just how old the name Colijnsplaat is for that matter – comments welcome as to if ‘Colijn’ is a version of the name of our goddess!

Aside from Celtic considerations of the name, it may also contain the name of a very German divinity, namely ‘Frau Holle’, who answers in almost every way to the description of the Gaelic ‘Cailleach’. Also known as Holda, Hulda, Huldra as well as Gode, Perchta, etc, she is a common theme in the mythology of Germany and Scandinavia. This name is also linked to that of the Norse otherworld goddess Hel, and it is worth considering that the German word for what is in English called ‘Hell’ is Hölle. The Frau Holle of folktales is generally depicted as a friendly but potentially spiteful aged matron who might be encountered deep in the woods or living on mountains. Like the Cailleach, she is deemed mythically responsible for weather phenomena such as snow, a creatrix of rivers, herder of wildlife (clouds were sometimes referred to as ‘Frau Holle’s lambs’) etc. Like the Cailleach, she possesses a magical veil or coverlet (an analogy of seasonal fertility if you think about). She – like the Cailleach – has also known to have been associated in tales with dogs. It is possible then, that ‘Nehallennia’ might equally be a version of ‘Holle’ – perhaps a ‘Frau Hallen’? As I have said before, the ‘German’ peoples were ‘Celtic’ anyway…

Nehalennia’s Dog:

The dog has an interesting symbolism in relation to both the Otherworld domain and human utility. Dogs are creatures who have followed human settlement for many an age, and have entered into a domestic relationship which is at times uneasy, as they are potentially dangerous. In fact, wolves – long portrayed as an archetype for man’s fearsome bestial adversaries are simply one end of the spectrum of ‘dog’. Wild dogs are features of the liminal boundaries of human habitations and roadways, and for this reason they have a ‘liminal’ aspect ideal for the portrayal of death and the otherworld. Death is feared, yet death is fruitful. A dog can be ‘man’s best friend’ or his incessant enemy. A dog can help the hunter, but the hunter can also be hunted by the wolf. The dog in mythology represents as essence of the dual nature of technologies – to help or to hinder – and was adopted in ancient Greek mythology as a companion of the <Artemis-Selene-Hekate> hypostasis of the mystery cults. The dog was also a symbol and companion of Apollo’s ‘son’ (or aspect), Aesculapias, god of healing. The dog therefore portrayed hunting (or harvest), death and regeneration. Its place at Nehalennia’s feet, along with baskets of apples on the stealae and statues recovered from the Netherlands seems to suggest that she represented cthonic wealth and was therefore also an otherworld goddess.


Ancient Greek Hekate or Artemis with her dog. Incidentally, Hekate was also frequently depicted as a triple-goddess!

Ancient Greek Hekate or Artemis with her dog. Incidentally, Hekate was also frequently depicted as a triple-goddess!

That the sea-voyage to Britain was particularly hazardous on account of weather and its notoriously difficult shorelines no doubt also supports the assertion that Nehalennia was a death-goddess. The pagan mindset with its belief in reincarnation had no problems equating death and fertility, as death was part of nature’s cycle of regeneration. The Greek goddess Demeter (known to the Romans as Ceres), seems to have a similar aspect, from which the tale of Hades’ abduction of her ‘daughter’ aspect Persephone/Kore derives. This tale underpinned most of the mythology of the mystery cults of ancient Europe: Eleusis, Samothrace, Orphism and the Dionysian-Sabazian mysteries. In the myths, Demeter is accompanied to the underworld by Hekate. The three-headed dog Cerberus guards the approach to Hades.

A vase image of Herakles completing his 12th task - leashing Cerberus while Hekate watches. Image (c)

A vase image of Herakles completing his 12th task – leashing Cerberus while Hekate watches. Image (c)

And finally…

On the subject of the Zeeland shoreline and its importance to trade in ancient (and modern) Europe, it is worth remembering that this is probably the vicinity mentioned by the early Byzantine historian Procopius (6thC CE) where there was a legend of the dead departing by boat for the isle of Brittia.

“They imagine that the souls of the dead are transported to that island. On the coast of the continent there dwell under Frankish sovereignty, but hitherto exempt from all taxation, fishers and farmers, whose duty it is to ferry the souls over. This duty they take in turn. Those to whom it falls on any night, go to bed at dusk; at midnight they hear a knocking at their door, and muffled voices calling. Immediately they rise, go to the shore, and there see empty boats, not their own but strange ones, they go on board and seize the oars. When the boat is under way, they perceive that she is laden choke-full, with her gunwales hardly a finger’s breadth above water. Yet they see no one, and in an hour’s time they touch land, which one of their own craft would take a day and a night to do. Arrived at Brittia, the boat speedily unloads, and becomes so light that she only dips her keel in the wave. Neither on the voyage nor at landing do they see any one, but they hear a voice loudly asking each one his name and country. Women that have crossed give their husbands’ names.”

There can be no doubt that this is a description of a mystical rather than actual voyage to the Atlantic Otherworld, and was based on accounts heard in Constantinople from Low Countries emissaries. I think it just adds a further frisson of interest to the mystery of this otherworld goddess whose shrines dotted the shorelines in ancient times, and were eventually (perhaps fittingly) taken by the sea…


The Celtic otherworld in Romanian folk belief

Although largely identifying its modern cultural ethne as ‘Slavic’, Romania’s historical and archaeological past shows that in the ‘Dacian’ Iron Age and late Classical periods its identity was definitely what we today would consider ‘Celtic’. This identity survived until the ethno-cultural engineering of Romanisation, and then the ‘migration period’ displacements of the late 3rdC CE which caused Roman withdrawal in the face of southern migration of Goths and westward migration of Scythic peoples: This introduced the cultural and linguistic foundations nowadays associated with the idea of ‘Slavic’, albeit with an enduring ‘Roman’ identity, preserved in the country’s name. These processes culminated with the early medieval hegemonies of the Caucasus tribes of Avars and Bulgars who eventually formed a stable state which, by fits and starts, had finally Christianised under Byzantine influence by the 9thC CE.

When Herodotus commented upon the Dacians (called ‘Getae’ by the Greeks) in his 5thC BCE Histories, he noted in particular that these peoples believed in the continuity of the soul after death. They were, after all, a people related to the Thracians, among whom the poet-seer Orpheus was supposed to have arisen, providing the European classical world with one of its most important religions, believing firmly in reincarnation. This provided its adherents with a particular map of the Otherworld which modern Celticists can quite easily identify with…

In the modern popular understanding about Romanian folklore, the most influential stories and beliefs surround the dark and fearful aspects of Strigoi – the restless dead who wish to abstract the life-force of the living. These are the model for the modern conception of vampires (and werewolves), and who we nowadays like to think of as humanoids with long sharp canines used to bite and suck the physical blood from peoples’ bodies. The reality (if you can call it that) of the idea of Strigoi is somewhat more complicated, and deeply tied to the ancient beliefs of souls and the otherworld which underpinned the religion of Europe’s Iron Age peoples, possibly extending deeper into antiquity. Characteristically, Strigoi can be either human (‘witches’ – the Italic word for ‘witch’ is ‘Strega’), but they might also be the undying or resurrected dead who seek to abstract human life-force (sometimes as actual blood) and who sicken their victims before finally taking their lives. They can shape-shift into animal forms and pass normally insurmountable physical barriers, and become invisible.

Coupled to the belief in a more sinister Stregoi is the important Romanian myth of the Blajini – the meaning of which translates almost exactly to that same phrase used in Ireland for fairies: ‘Gentle People’. These were spirits supposed to occupy a parallel reflected otherworld which mirrored our own, and at there is still a tradition associated with them, celebrated at Easter, known as Paştele Blajinilor. This festival (often celebrated a week or so after Easter proper) has strong associations with the ancestral dead. Apart from visiting or tending the graves of the departed, it is attached to a custom in which dyed or decorated eggs (often red) were made and eaten in their honour and the shells dropped into rivers to take them to the Blajini (the idea being that they should then know that it was Easter)! Readers of my blog will recognise that this custom is another explicit demonstration of an ancient European belief that all rivers flow to the ‘world-river’ (Apa Sâmbetei to Romanians, Okeanos to the Greeks), which bounds the shores of both our own and the ‘other’ world. Apa Sâmbetei is usually translated or understood as ‘Saturday’s Water‘, but is actually fairly obviously ‘Saturn’s Water‘ since the realm of Saturn or Cronus was in ancient mythology upon the far shores of Okeanos. The term evidently comes through the influence of Trajan’s conquest of the Dacians. Romanian folklore held that the souls of departed travelled through streams and rivers to reach the Otherworld, and this is exactly paralleled in the remains of Celtic pagan beliefs demontrated throughout medieval Irish literature, as I have previously discussed.

More interestingly, another belief attached in traditions to the Blajini was that they continually fasted in the Otherworld in order to sanctify our own world with the divine grace this practice bestows upon christians. They therefore provided a ‘boon’ to humanity, that demanded respect. This is the same belief that Scots minister Robert Kirk described in the Scottish Highlands in his 17thC ‘Secret Commonwealth’ manuscript, concerning the otherworld ‘counterbalance’ – namely when we have plenty, ‘they’ have scarcity!

Both traditions – Strigoi and Blajini – therefore represent different aspects of the same original spirit-belief which so pervaded ‘Celtic’ Europe. They show the idea of the dead living in an inverted state in the otherworld, and whose behaviour towards us seeks to address an imbalance between a mundane and a spiritual existence. However, the ‘reincarnate’ dead who walk the earth again could have no place within the Christian cosmology and folklore except as some fearful ‘evil’ force representing death, darkness, disease and chaos – these evidently evolved to become the Stregoi, whereas the Blajini were ‘allowed’ a continued existence as they largely stayed in the ‘spiritual’ realm beyond the concerns of mundanity, and therefore could not transgress the Christian doctrines to such a degree. In fact, the two ‘archetypes’ are more of a continuity, so that Blajini are sometimes of a more fearful aspect. They are therefore both analogous to the spirits of the Gaelic world, and indeed seem to share the same ancient doctrinal heritage…