The Celts were an ancient Indo-European people, who were collectively identifiable by their use of similar languages and cultural attributes. Their communities stretched across modern-day Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Balkans.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Celtic gods were worshiped by these communities from as early as 3000 BC. However, the combination of a lack of written evidence and limited examples of divine imagery means that it is difficult to make definitive statements about Celtic gods and religious beliefs.
Most of our evidence and understanding is provided by Roman texts and inscriptions from the 1st–4th centuries AD, a time when the Roman Empire consumed many Celtic regions.
Roman governing authorities were surprisingly tolerant of other religions, beliefs, and their gods. But Rome could not completely avoid imposing its own perspective and iconography on foreign religious practice. For example, there are some Celtic gods who were combined with similar Roman gods in an attempt to harmonize Roman occupation of a foreign land, such as the goddess Sulis Minerva.
Therefore, the true details of Celtic gods and goddesses and the ways in which they were worshiped may forever remain elusive. But what we do know is that there was a vast array of Celtic gods belonging to both local and more widespread cults. What is also clear is that the majority of these deities were identified with various aspects of the natural world.
Taranis, Thunder God
Taranis, also known as Tanarus, was the Celtic god of the sky and thunder. There is archaeological evidence of his cult in Britain, northern France and Germany and he appears to have been one of the most important Celtic gods.
He is also mentioned by the Roman poet Lucan in his poem Pharsalia. Lucan claims that human sacrifices were made to Taranis, but modern historians are divided as to whether the Celts actually carried out this practice.
Taranis was possibly also a solar god, since he is often associated with the symbol of the wheel. This was a celestial symbol used to represent the turning phases of the year and the changing seasons. Due to his associations and prominence in Celtic religion, Taranis is often closely linked with the Roman god Jupiter in visual representations.
Lugus, Sun God
Little is known about the Celtic god Lugus, also known as Lug or Lugh, but he is thought to have been associated with light and the arts. His cult was widespread across Europe and this can be seen in a number of place names which feature derivations of his name, such as Lyon in France and Carlisle in northern Britain.
Despite his popularity, few iconographic representations of him have been discovered. From the rare examples that we do have, he is normally represented in triplicate form. This was common for many Celtic gods and goddesses and is thought to represent a Celtic belief in the protective nature of groups of three. It may be that he was originally one of three brothers. Julius Caesar refers to Lugus in De Bello Gallico as Mercurius, showing that the Romans associated him with the god Mercury.
Nodens, Hunting And Healing God
Nodens was the Celtic god of hunting, dogs and, most commonly, healing. For this reason, he is often associated with the Classical god of healing, Asclepius. Nodens appears to have been an exclusively British god and no representations of him have been found in human form. Instead, a number of dog statues have been found at his cult sites and historians are undecided as to whether these statues represent the god in animal form or if the dog was Nodens’ attendant.
The largest cult site for Nodens has been discovered at Lydney Park estate in Gloucestershire, England. The site consists of a large temple complex which is thought to have been a healing sanctuary since many medical implements, such as opticians’ tools, have been discovered there.
Deae Matres, Nursing Mother Goddesses
The Deae Matres, or Mother Goddesses, are commonly known by their Latin name. However, Celtic suffixes are also found in inscriptions, presumably to identify a particular tribe or localized cult. The Mother Goddesses were worshiped widely across the Celtic world, from Britain to northern Italy.
They are most closely associated with fertility and childbirth, but also with water and natural springs. The Mother Goddesses were thought to offer protection against the dangers of childbirth and infant mortality.
Statues often represent them in triplicate and they can be seen as either nursing babies or holding baskets of food, a key symbol of fertility. Clay figurines, produced in Gaul, have also been found in graves, which suggests these goddesses were also believed to provide protection in the afterlife.
Genii Cucullati ‘Hooded Spirits’, Health Gods
The Genii Cucullati were another group of triplicate Celtic gods worshiped across Britain, Gaul and Germany. Known by their Latin name, which translates as the Hooded Spirits, these gods are shown wearing the Celtic cloak and hood. Some historians also refer to them as dwarf gods because they appear to be small in stature in some stone carvings; however, this may be merely a result of the stylized and rudimentary nature of some Celtic craftsmanship.
The Cucullati are a mysterious group and little is known of their precise associations. They are often depicted with Mother Goddesses, as in the image above, and this has led many to believe that they are connected with fertility and possibly also prosperity. Sometimes they are shown carrying baskets of eggs, a recognized Celtic symbol of life and birth.
Epona, Fertility Goddess
Epona was the Celtic goddess of horses, ponies and mules, her name derives from the Gaulish word for horse. She is often depicted astride a horse or standing between two horses. There are a few examples of her holding a basket of fruit, leading some to believe that she was also associated with fertility, like the Mother Goddesses.
The majority of archaeological finds relating to her have come from eastern Gaul and Germany. However, Epona is unusual in that she was a Celtic goddess later adopted by the Romans. She was particularly popular with the cavalry divisions of the Roman army, who helped to spread her cult across the empire. Her name also appears in the work of Roman writers Juvenal and Apuleius, both of whom refer to depictions of her found in horse stables.
Coventina, River Goddess
Coventina is an example of a Celtic goddess belonging to a localized cult in the north-east of England. A large number of artifacts relating to her have been discovered at the site of an ancient well at Carrawburgh. Carrawburgh is situated on Hadrian’s Wall, which was built across northern England on the orders of the emperor Hadrian in circa 122 AD. Coins found in the well suggest that Coventina’s cult developed between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D.
Many honorific altars have been found near the well and their inscriptions suggest that she was worshiped as a river goddess, who could provide a vital source of water to the local area. The altars are mostly dedicated by locals but their iconography is wholly Roman, highlighting the Roman occupation of the area.
Unknown Celtic Gods & Goddesses
There are many Celtic gods whom we know very little to nothing about, which adds to the mysterious allure of the Celtic society. One such example is the goddess Sattada. In 1835, a small inscribed altar was discovered in a churchyard in Northumberland, England. The enigmatic inscription on the altar is yet to be definitively understood. It is dedicated to a Sattada or Satiada.
Nothing at all is known of this goddess and she appears nowhere else in archaeological records. It is suggested that she may be a minor river goddess, similar to Coventina since she originates from the same region. The dedicators of the altar, the Textoverdi, are also completely unknown. Historians have surmised that they may be textile workers from a Gaulish tribe since their name derives from the word for a weaver.
The Celtic gods and goddesses, therefore, take many varied forms and some kept their true identity a secret even to this day. However, despite their mysterious origins, it is clear that these deities were inherently connected to the natural world and the most fundamental of human concerns: reproduction and sustenance.
The Roman influence on how we view Celtic religion today cannot be underestimated but it is also largely due to the dominance of the Roman Empire, its writers, and inscriptions, that we know anything about it at all.