What Was the Celtic “Cult of the Head”?

Let’s discover what archaeologists describe as the Celtic “cult of the head”. What was it, and how did it appear in Celtic culture?

Feb 11, 2024By Rachel Sweeney, MA Art History, BA History & Art History
what was celtic cult head

 

The ancient Celts are often thought to have worshipped the human head, based on ancient Greek and Roman sources documenting Celtic headhunting practices and material evidence of ritual head worship. The issue with the so-called Celtic “cult of the head” rests in the biased nature of Classical sources documenting experiences with their Celtic neighbors. So, were the Celts simply barbarians, or was there more to their relationship with the human head?

 

Who Were the Celts?

dying gaul
The Dying Gaul (marble copy of Greek original), c. 50-1 BCE, Rome, Italy. Source: Musei Capitolini.

 

The term “Celtic” is a little ambiguous, so it might be helpful to begin with breaking down who the ancient Celts were. The Celts are generally thought to have developed in central Europe in Hallstatt, Austria, which historians treat as a cradle of Celtic civilization. The Celts were not one unified people. Rather, they were varied peoples grouped under the umbrella term “Celtic” based on linguistic similarities and shared cultural practices. The various groups of Celtic peoples included the Gauls, the Galatians, the Celtiberians, the Britons, etc. Within these groups were distinct tribal communities. For example, the Iceni were Brythonic (Brittonic) Celts.

 

Aside from tribal and regional labels like these, historians have also grouped Celtic peoples by their stages of migration across the European continent and eastward into Asia. Historic groupings of Celtic peoples have been delineated according to cultural “phases,” or developments in cultural practices and stylistic trends in material culture. The Hallstatt culture is generally traced to c. 1200-450 BCE. The second phase is the La Tène culture, which broadly refers to the Celtic peoples in central and western Europe and dates to c. 450 BCE-50 CE. The third phase is the Romano-British culture, which signifies the Celtic peoples living in Britain and Ireland c. 50-410 CE. Following this, early medieval art in Ireland has often been referred to as “Celtic” as well.

 

The ancient Celts had contact with their Mediterranean neighbors from at least the 6th century BCE onwards. Celts living during the late Hallstatt period participated in active trade with Mediterranean civilizations, particularly the Greek colony of Massalia and the Etruscans in central and northern Italy. During this period, Celtic peoples of the Hallstatt culture imported bronze and ceramic vases, coral, and luxury foodstuffs like wine. They may have paid for them with raw materials like gold, iron, and pelts, or with slaves (Maier, 2018).

 

What Is a “Head Cult” & What Does It Have to Do with the Celts?

roquepertuse columns
Columns from Roquepertuse with niches for skull display, c. 3rd century BCE, Velaux, France. Musée d’archéologie méditerranéenne in Marseille. Source: Ministère de la Culture, France.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

 

The idea of a Celtic “cult of the head” is based on the large volume of archaeological evidence that suggests that the Celtic people worshipped the human head. Though it is unclear exactly where the concept of a “head cult” as it relates to the Celts originated, the notion has been popularized by historians of the Iron Age to describe this fascination. The Celts were not the only ones, globally, to have a documented interest in the human head. Their interest in it, though, thoroughly pervades not only their material and visual culture but also the Greek and Roman textual accounts of Celtic headhunting and head-collecting practices.

 

Classical accounts of these practices were often extremely vivid. For example, ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus offers a detailed account in Book V of his Historical Library, written c. 36 BCE, claiming:

 

“When their enemies fall they cut off their heads and fasten them about the necks of their horses; and turning over to their attendants the arms of their opponents, all covered in blood, they carry them off as booty, singing a paean over them and striking up a song of victory, and these first fruits of battle they fasten by nails upon their houses… The heads of their most distinguished enemies they embalm in cedar-oil and carefully preserve in a chest, and these they exhibit to strangers, gravely maintaining that in exchange for this head some one of their ancestors, or their father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a great sum of money.”

 

Diodorus Siculus suggests that Celtic peoples not only viewed the human head as a worthwhile spoil of war but also that heads held ancestral value once they entered Celtic possession. Passages like these often act to intentionally barbarize Celts, offering justification for Greco-Roman acts of imperial expansion. But how truthful were these accounts?

 

Archaeological Evidence of the “Cult of the Head”

embalmed celtic skull
Embalmed skull, c. 3rd century BCE, found at Le-Cailar, France. Source: Fouille Programmée Le Cailar-UMR5140-ASM.

 

There is a wealth of evidence that suggests a significant veneration of the human head by Celtic peoples. This evidence comes from both domestic and sanctuary Celtic settlements. It includes real, preserved human skulls that were embalmed; temple pillars that include niches for the display of heads; life-sized sculpted heads; and the accompaniment of each of these with human and animal bones that suggest ritual practices of veneration. The quote from Diodorus Siculus above details that Celts would have used cedar oil to preserve these heads and either keep them in chests or display them regularly and that the Celts treated severed, preserved heads as extremely valuable.

 

Some of the best-surviving examples of the way Celtic peoples would have displayed these heads at a sanctuary settlement come from Roquepertuse in Velaux, France. A sanctuary settlement refers to a settlement that would have been used almost exclusively for religious purposes, and not many people would have lived there. The niches that remain in the columns from Roquepertuse were evidently designed to accommodate skulls. Roquepertuse was a settlement established for ritual practice, and the columns were part of a temple that would have been a site of head worship. Archaeologists have analyzed the skulls that were lodged in these columns and have found that they belonged exclusively to male individuals under the age of 40, signifying that they likely originally belonged to warriors, specifically to prized enemies in the prime of their lives (Ross, 1996).

 

msecke zehrovice head
Mšecké Žehrovice Head, c. 150-50 BCE, La Tène, Prague, Czech Republic. Prague National Museum. Source: Arkeonews.

 

An example of the ritual offering of bones to heads was the veneration of the Mšecké Žehrovice head, otherwise known as the Celtic Hero from Bohemia, which was found in a village of the same name in modern-day Czechia. The head was discovered in several fragments in an enclosure on the settlement at Mšecké Žehrovice in 1943. It was found alongside 25 pottery shards, a fragment of coiled iron wire, a whetstone, and 43 animal bones. The head remains one of the best-known pieces of Celtic art today and presents a detailed image of a man presumed to be either a warrior or Druid. Regardless, archaeologists have determined that the sculpture was meant to portray an important local community member because of its presence in a domestic settlement and the presumed circumstances of its veneration.

 

The “Cult of the Head” in Celtic Art

dejbjerg wagon handle
Detail of a hand grip on the Dejbjerg wagon, c. 1 BCE, Dejbjerg, Denmark. Source: National Museum of Denmark.

 

Archaeologists have uncovered many other “Celtic” sculpted heads like the Hero from Bohemia at sites across the European continent. These heads range in their appearance, though they typically fall into two categories. They either show an individual with facial hair, usually only a mustache, or they show a clean-shaven individual. Most of these heads are thought to depict warriors. Most sculpted heads from the continent have been reliably dated to the Iron Age, though heads from Britain and Ireland are more difficult to date accurately. Some stone heads from the British Isles appear to have been made as late as the 17th or 18th centuries, which some historians have used as evidence to combat the notion of a distinctly Iron Age Celtic “cult of the head” (Armit, 2012).

 

The head also appears as a decorative design on functional objects. While sculpted heads were often life-sized and the subject of veneration, using the head as an ornamental design allowed artisans to play with the physicality of headhunting. The head often appears in places where the hand would touch the object: hand grips on a wagon, handles on flagons, near the handle of a bucket, etcetera. The way the fist would grip these objects may have mimicked the way that a fist would grip a head when “stealing” it during the headhunting process.

 

What Was So Magical About the Human Head?

cleveland celtic head
Celtic Head, c. 100-300 CE, Northern England. Source: Cleveland Museum of Art.

 

If we can accept that there is enough evidence to support that the ancient Celts did hunt, collect, and venerate human heads, the question remains: why?

 

The Celts believed that the soul was contained in the head and that the head was both the center of life and emotions, as well as a symbol of divinity and the powers of the other-world (Megaw, 1970). It is also suggested that, by cutting off and keeping the heads of their enemies, warriors would gain control over the spirits of those deceased, whose heads — charged with divine power — would be able to facilitate interaction with the divine during ritual veneration (Armit, 2012). These beliefs are connected through Julius Caesar’s claim that the Celts believed that the soul did not “become extinct” after death and that it could perhaps live on in the disembodied head before migrating elsewhere.

 

Headhunting may have been an act reserved for enemies on the battlefield, but head collecting could pertain to enemies or community members as a part of funerary practice. For the Celts, the head had associations with power, fertility, age, status, and gender in ritual (Armit, 2012). While headhunting may have been about control, reinforcing status, and inspiring fear, rituals associated with head collecting appear to have been part of a larger Celtic association of the human body with the natural landscape and with the otherworldly divine.

 

One Celtic belief involving the severed head and the natural world was the idea that drinking well water out of the skull of one’s ancestor had healing properties (Pennick, 1996). Livy claimed that Celts used skulls as a sacred drinking vessel at festivals, and that they were more frequently utilized as drinking cups by priests. The notion of using ancestral skulls for healing purposes, however, appears to be tied to the ritual importance of water for Celts. In Celtic belief, natural waters possess indwelling spirits that require veneration, and there is archaeological evidence to suggest that ritual deposition of offerings like bones and metalwork in watery environments was common. The belief in water’s curative and transformative properties, therefore, lent itself to the use of skulls — believed to be charged with divine power — as vessels for healing.

 

Did the Celts Have a “Cult of the Head”?

met museum celtic head
Head of a Man Wearing a Cap or Helmet, c. 2nd-3rd century CE, British Isles. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

The short answer is that yes, the Iron Age Celtic peoples did have a “cult of the head.” There is textual evidence that documents their headhunting practices, archaeological evidence of Celtic head veneration, and they frequently used the human head motif in their art. The truth is more complicated than the textual evidence suggests. They did behead their enemies and steal those heads in battle, but they also beheaded their ancestors and community members as part of ritual funerary practice. While it was believed that the beholder of a stolen head could channel divine power through it and maintain control over the deceased, it was also believed that the head could cure its wielder of ailments. The head remains a complicated symbol in Celtic culture, though it was, nevertheless, an important one.

 

Bibliography

 

Armit, I. (2012). Headhunting and the Body in Iron Age Europe. Cambridge University Press.

Maier, B. (2018). The Celts: A History from Early Times to the Present. Edinburgh University Press.

Megaw, J.V.S. (1970). Art of the European Iron Age: A study of the elusive image. Harper and Row.

Pennick, N. (1996). Celtic Sacred Landscapes. Thames and Hudson.

Ross, A. (1996). Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. Academy Chicago.

Author Image

By Rachel SweeneyMA Art History, BA History & Art HistoryRachel holds an MA in Art History, a dual-degree BA in History and Art History, and a certificate in Medieval Studies. Her research so far has focused on Celtic art and early medieval art of Ireland and the British Isles.