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.

279: Brennus and the mystery of the undiluted wine…

Three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first; the second to love and pleasure; the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home. The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth is the policeman’s; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the tenth to madness and the hurling of furniture. (Eubulus, Greek playwright, 4thC BCE – quoted by Athenaeus in ‘Deipnosophists’ 2.37c)

Pausanias, the famous Greek travel writer of the 2ncC CE,  claimed that the leader of the military assault of the Celtic general Brennus on the oracle-sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi in Greece in 279BCE died following his defeat (engendered by the wrath of Apollo and the bravery of some doubty Greeks), after drinking ‘unmixed’ (undiluted) wine:

…Brennus’ wounds left him no hope; they say out of fear of his countrymen and even more out of shame as the cause of all their sufferings in Greece, he died deliberately by drinking unmixed wine

Having formed a massive federation of warriors from across Celtdom (then stretching from the Alantic west coasts to the Pannonian basin) their leaders, including (among others) Brennus, Acichorius and Bolgios, surged with them through the Balkans into Thrace, Macedonia and northern Greece. Brennus’ cohorts crashed through the Greek defences at Thermopylae and made for the bejewelled ‘holy cow’ of the holy oracle of Pythian Apollo at Delphi on Mount Parnassos. Their intention was undoubtedly to gain booty and prestige, but the religious importance of such a target – one of the most important of the ancient world – must not be underestimated.

Pausanias had few kind words for these Celts whom he describes (400 years later) unsympathetically as a cunning, fanatical, chaotic, and brutal baby-murdering horde – the epitome of barbarians to the average Greek. His account of Brennus’ attempted attack on Delphi is full of somewhat fantastical detail relating how Apollo caused earthquakes, lightning storms, frost and snow to thwart the barbarians before driving them insane and causing them to attack one another. Suffering attacks from the Phocians and Aetolians, Brennus is injured and the army is driven into retreat. As he describes the Celtic approach to Delphi, however, Pausanias’ account seems devolve from the historical into a mythical depiction of the Greek god and the land itself repelling the Celts, leaving a suspicion that the outcome of the real event was skirted around: None of the Greek military engagements appear to be decisive – according to Pausanias, the claimed victory was more due to fantastical events – the wrath of the gods:

” …All the day the barbarians were beset by calamities and terrors of this kind. But the night was to bring upon them experiences far more painful. For there came on a severe frost, and snow with it; and great rocks slipping from Parnassus, and crags breaking away, made the barbarians their target, the crash of which brought destruction, not on one or two at a time, but on thirty or even more, as they chanced to be gathered in groups, keeping guard or taking rest…

… At sunrise the Greeks came on from Delphi… 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… “

His account of a rout and defeat occuring before Delphi could be sacked is also somewhat at odds with others from within the Roman world (eg – Strabo) which suggest that Delphi may indeed have been laid waste and some of its gold taken back as far as Tolosa (Toulouse) in Gallia Narbonensis by the Volcae-Tectosages. Nonetheless, Brennus died in the retreat, by his own acts or omissions – that much seems certain. The other classical historian, Justin (Marcus Junianus Justinus‘Epitome of the Phillipic history of Pompeius Trogus’, Book 24), who is our other (and perhaps Pausanias’) source for Brennus’ assault, agrees largely in its detail, except to say that Brennus took his own life with a dagger. That the suicide came about through the consumption of alcohol is, however, stressed in the accounts:

” … 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… “

(Translation: John Selby Watson, 1853)

Justin’s account was an abridged version of a more extensive history written by 1stC BCE Gallo-Roman author, Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus, of the Vocontii in Gallia Narbonensis – a province with associations with the Volcae-Tectosages and hence with ancestral knowledge of the assault on Delphi. Gallia Narbonensis was settled by the Greeks before the coming of the Romans in the 2ndC BCE.Reading between the lines of Trogus and Justin’s account, one can see that Delphi – an undefended city – appears to have tried to appease Brennus by giving wine and food to his troops, the consequences of which become apparent. It then attacked them and drove them off, although not necessarily without some serious loot.

So what about the curious reference to ‘unmixed wine’?

‘Unmixed wine’ sounds like a barbarian treat – the Greeks considered it ‘hard liquor’. We know from many sources that it was an important commodity among the feasting warrior-culture of the Celts, who – like their  various European cousins – had a historic reputation for a love of the celebratory consumption of alcohol. Dilution of this drink would certainly have diminished its euphoriant qualities and kept them closer to Eubulus’ idealised and civilised first three bowls. Celtic warriors were, however, members of an adrenaline-fuelled, fearless and sensationalist culture – definitely a ‘six bowls’ and up kind of people if contemporary accounts are to be believed!

The possibility of a store of ‘special’ hallucinogenic wine used in sacred Dionysiac rites or by the oracular Pythias priestesses being plundered from Delphi by the unwitting warriors might account for Pausanias’ story of the violent hallucinatory confusion which came upon Brennus’ encampment, although Justin/Trogus cites drunkenness causing ill-discipline. In the first case, we might take it that Brennus possibly even died of a drug overdose during a celebratory feast, or was murdered by a colleague, rather having committed suicide…

The health problems and political problems resulting from the of over-consumption of wine was apparently a perennial problem for the banqueting and borgeoise elites of any society, and the barbarian warrior lords such as Brennus and the (later, arguably more famous) Hunnic warchief, Attila, might be considered case-studies of alcoholic mischief among barbarian chieftains. Attila (according to the unsympathetic Jordanes , in his book Getica, 6thC CE) apparently died ?vomiting blood from his nose – a demise almost certainly a result (if true) of his lifestyle, coupled with the stresses of leadership.

…He had given himself up to excessive joy at his wedding, and as he lay on his back, heavy with wine and sleep, a rush of superfluous blood, which would ordinarily have flowed from his nose, streamed in deadly course down his throat and killed him, since it was hindered in the usual passages. Thus did drunkenness put a disgraceful end to a king renowned in war… (Getica Ch.59)

The account, although not contemporary, has unusual detail and may be based upon a composite of earlier accounts. Brennus (if you believe Pausanias) may have suffered a similar fate, if the comment about his use of ‘unmixed’ wine is an allusion to personal alcoholic peril: the Dionysian/Apollonian diseases of madness and in-fighting are all faintly alluded to in Pausanias’ account of his death.

The Gauls’ apparent target-icon, Alexander III (‘The Great’) of Macedonia, was indeed also said to have died following a number of heavy drinking-sessions in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar at Babylon in 323BCE. Although fever was the likely cause, the proximity of alcohol to the onset of the illness is notable in the famous account of Greek historian Arrian, which itself was based upon contemporary court accounts. The ‘party atmosphere’ and over-consumption of booze no doubt fostered the divisions among the heirs to his empire – a factor not lost on narrative traditions describing the subsequent demise of later warrior enterprises.

“…A few days later he (Alexander) had performed the divine sacrifices (those prescribed for good fortune and others suggested by the priests) and was drinking far into the night with some friends. He is said to have distributed sacrificial victims and wine to the army by detachments and companies. Some state that he wanted to leave the drinking-party and go to bed, but then Medius met him, the most trusty of his Companions, and asked him to a party, for he promised that it would be a good one…
…The Royal Diaries tell us that he drank and caroused with Medius. Later he rose, had a bath and slept. He then returned to have dinner with Medius and again drank far into the night. Leaving the drinking, he bathed, after which he had a little to eat and went to sleep there. The fever was already on him…”

The perilous health of celebrant warrior-chiefs seems to have been a major theme determining the fate of the ancient world, so much so that the ‘Primary Chronicle’ of the Kievan Rus (who were one of the last major eastern European powers to be Christianised during the 10th-11thC CE) contains the following allusion to it in an oath: In this, the pagan Slavic magnate, Svlyatoslav, promises not to attack the interests of the Christian emperors of Constantinople:

” … And even as I have given oath to the Greek Emperors in company with my boyars and all my subjects, so may we preserve this treaty inviolate. But if we fail in the observance of any of the aforesaid stipulations, either I or my companions, or my subjects, may we be accursed of the god in whom we believe, namely, of Perun and Volos, the god of flocks, and we become yellow as gold, and be slain with our own weapons… ” (trans. Samuel Cross)

This could almost be an invocation of the famous hepatically-challenged fates of proud Brennus or even Alexander or Attila, all of whom are suggested to have succumbed (no doubt with many of their ‘flocks’) to the jaundiced curse of gold, and seeking to become equal with the sun: excessive feasting, alcoholism and the in-fighting that can only be engendered within such a toxic atmosphere…