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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Celtic Idolatry, past and present

    Some people in Celtic Reconstruction prefer not to use images of the Gods, following the idea that the Celts themselves did not do so. A main source for this belief is a quote from the Gaulish Chieftain Brennus, who sacked Rome and was said to have been incredulous at the idea of statues of the Gods in human form in temples: "Brennus, the king of the Gauls, on entering a temple found no dedications of gold or silver, and when he came only upon images of stone and wood he laughed at them, to think that men, believing that gods have human form, should set up their images in wood and stone." - Diodorus Siculus  
   On the other hand I am a pretty strong advocate of using imagery and statues in worship. I think from a purely psychological perspective it gives us something to focus on and connect to. From a magical and spiritual perspective there is also the way that a physical object becomes a channel for the divinity that it represents. 
   Countering the account of Brennus by Diodorus there is evidence that the use of symbolic representations of the Gods was a practice by other Celtic tribes. Caesar notes in his Gallic War: "The chief god of the Gauls is Mercury and there are images of him everywhere." (Freeman, 2002). Certainly we do know that by the later Romano-Gallic period the use of God images was widespread, but archaeology also seems to indicate the use of imagery earlier as well. In either case the examples we have show a distinctive flavor that would seem to indicate genuine Celtic belief influencing them and it is clear they were used by Celtic and mixed Celtic populations. We can find examples of such statuary at Sulis's temple in Bath, Nodens temple in Gloucestershire, as well as Artio's statuary found at Berne (Green, 1992). There are also widespread examples of statues to the various Matronae across the Celtic world (Green, 1992). This tells us that even if at an earlier period the Celts or specific tribes didn't use imagery at later points they did. 
   From a purely Irish perspective there is limited evidence. There are many natural locations and features that are associated with the various Irish Gods, but actual man made representations do not seem to be major features in the archaeological records. We have anecdotal evidence in the folklore that the Gods were believed to take human form and appear to people or possibly even interact in our world. The conception of Cu Chulain, for example, where Lugh appears to Deichtine and the men of Ulster or the story of Macha marrying the peasant Crunnchu. O hOgain quotes Dillion's Serglige Con Culainn, saying "He states that they [the Tuatha De Danann] 'used to fight men in bodily form...'" (O hOgain, 1999, p 213). This supports the idea that the Irish did anthropomorphize their Gods, a key requirement for depicting Gods in statuary. We also have some evidence, albeit less persuasive*, of the use of imagery through the story of Crom Cruach (or Cenn Cruach) who was said to have a stone or gold idol at Mag Slecht surrounded by 12 smaller stone statues (O hOgain, 2006). 
   We may conclude that the Irish saw their Gods as living beings who could appear to people, and perhaps had no need, therefore to depict them in imagery. We can also say that there did not appear to be any prohibition against it and that there were many examples of a type of idolatry using symbolic representations such as stones or places believed to belong to that Power. In the wider Celtic world, including Wales and England we do find statuary used, so the choice to use or not use statuary by modern Celtic reconstructionists should be entirely personal, as either would be historically supported. 
    For myself I enjoy using statuary. I like having something in ritual to represent the deity I am trying to connect to and I believe that it helps me focus in prayer. I like to find a statue that really resonates with me and then I paint it myself. Sometimes the statue that I feel most represents a deity I honor isn't supposed to be that deity, but I'll use it anyway if it works for me. I feel that the painting really helps connect it to that deity and to get some of myself into it. 
One of the statues I use to represent Macha (wife of Crunnchu); from Sacred Source it originally was meant to be Arianrhod but works much better for me as Macha, painted by me

Freeman, P., (2002). War, Women, and Druids
Green, M (1992). Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legends
O hOgain, D., (1999) The Sacred Isle
    --- (2006) The Lore of Ireland

*It is possible that this example is not native and was inserted to be reminiscent of a Biblical story, so it must be given less weight as other evidence


  1. Me, I'm very much in favor of using images (though I don't actually have many myself at this point, I do plan to change that in the near future). Thanks for this discussion of them.

  2. Very interesting. I can't use images - my deities don't like them. My gods are very much of the land, so I represent them with candle flames and pictures of the lands where they're from, along with items that are reminiscent of them (such as water from Brighid's well in Kildare). That seems to work better for me than images.