Brythonic Polytheism Sacred Space & Shrine Direction

When researching for Steel Bars, Sacred Waters, I noticed that in Celtic Roman Britain the temples were all built with a southwest entrance. Future research may of course find others with a different orientation, but this is a large, consistent pattern and obviously not random. This seemed to have important implications for Brythonic polytheists, and perhaps other Celtic Reconstructionists. In the book I didn’t have time or space to delve deeper into this, but hoped those who read it would notice and put the information in context with current, fashionable theories about how the Celts adapted to Roman religion. Here I bring the ideas together and perhaps may add something to the practice of Celtic Reconstructionists. (If you have read Steel Bars, Sacred Waters, then you know much of this, often in greater detail, but the orientation of Brythonic polytheist ritual space was never “spelled out” directly.)

The Romans did not just appear and take over the local religious cults. They had uprisings, political intrigue and road building keeping them busy. Except for the Roman Civic Cult that united all Roman citizens, the Romans didn’t really get involved with the local religion. The stone statues of Celtic deities look like Roman deities because Roman craftsmen were hired to make them. (As Thracian artisans put animal designs on most art, the importance of the cauldron image most Pagans use for Cernunnos – and from that image of him surrounded by animals have wrongfully named him “Lord of the Animals” – should be carefully reviewed. The many Celtic images of him with the snake are a better way to study him. All the Celtic deities on the famous cauldron have animals surrounding them!)

In one British region a Celtic God may have been associated with Mars, in another with Mercury. This is true in Gaul and Iberia as well. Celts seem to have often made that choice, not Romans. Or, based on different Celtic ideas about the same deity, Romans in different regions choose the Roman deity who seemed to fit best what that particular Celtic person was saying. With Celtic religion being so decentralized and tribes having their own ancestral and bioregional deities, no group of Celts was instructing the Romans. The Druids had already been destroyed, but they were not religious leaders then, as much as an educated, powerful elite in a culture that did not separate religious from secular life.

In the same spirit, there were no Roman Priests running about trying to control Celtic religion. For the most part, the Romans didn’t bring Priests with them. Much of Roman religion is actually quite bioregional to the city of Rome. What the Brythonic people learned about Roman religion came from discussions with whatever Romans they met (like a merchant, a Syrian or Gaulish soldier, or a Roman official, ranging from a tax collector to a General) and what Brythonic people who had actually been to Rome reported. This is like asking random Christians of many denominations in the world  and someone who visited Vatican City for a week on business “How do you/they do Christianity?” A Utah Mormon, Nigerian Pentecostal Christian, Scottish Presbyterian, Haitian Catholic, Greek Orthodox, etc are going to answer differently, not only because the form of orthopraxy (how you do religion) is different, but because each person has a different level of official education and training.

Due to this, Celts in different regions learned different parts of Roman religion and mythology, just like southern Gauls did centuries earlier with Greece. Those Gauls were not conquered by Greece and maintained their independence. They just saw the Greeks had some good ideas and powerful deities they included in their culture, like Apollo, sometimes Hermes, which may explain the ease in which the Gauls later took to Mercury. During the start of the Roman occupation, it was obviously much more traumatic, with war and chaos everywhere, and freedoms lost. The Celtic people were struggling with where they fit into the new world. A new political structure was forced upon them, but it did not directly affect the native religion. The ideas about religion, especially the Civic Cult, were suddenly available and the Celtic people had a tendency like any other people to love imported goods. (Like the Swedish woman buried in the 10th century with many luxury items, including a statue of the Buddha. Did she know anything about the Buddha? Probably not, except he was a rare foreign item, thus showing her wealth and status.)

At least in the beginning, Celtic leaders were making choices about what from Rome would be paid for and included in their own tribe’s religion. A Gaulish merchant in the new Roman Empire may have commissioned a large statue of Mercury, thus creating the religious center of a local Celtic Mercury cult – whatever that looked like! These local “mish mash” cults were one important way Celtic people were choosing what from Roman religion to incorporate. Celtic cultures seem to have always been flexible and open to considering changes, within reason. An important example is art. They were always introducing different art styles into theirs, and art until recently was always religious. The Southern Gauls adoption of Apollo and Hermes/Mercury show that the Celts were never against the deities of other cultures.

At the same time, a new cult of the Hero Ancestor with self-consciously Brythonic Iron Age religious elements briefly appeared. Folly’s Lane, described in the book, is a wonderful example of how Brythonic religion changed over the years of Roman occupation.

Three generations later, Britons probably had a better understanding of Roman religion, as it developed where they lived. Temple theaters produced Greek and Roman plays that focused on mythology, and scholars and merchants learned Latin. Gradually, the Brythonic people, especially in the southern areas of Britain, began to think more like citizens of Rome. Ideas long accepted by Gauls such as cities are for living, not just trade, never really were accepted and of course the Brythonic languages continued. As language contains a way of thinking that can’t ever be easily translated, Celtic concepts stayed alive with phrases and also traditional folk tales.

For some, especially in the northern parts of what we call England, life, including religion, probably didn’t change very much aside from who collected their taxes. Hadrian’s Wall, where many Gaulish and German soldiers were stationed had several temples and gives us many names of Gaulish and German deities, was in that area. When not fighting natives or trying to stop their cattle raids, these soldiers traded with the locals, sometimes even marrying them. (That was not formally allowed but we have records of a Syrian solider marrying a British woman. Obviously no xenophobia.) So, even in remote areas there still was interaction, which much of Briton came to economically depend upon for survival. When goods are traded, so are ideas.

Some may say “The Romans killed the remaining Druids because they were so powerful.” That’s true, but let’s remember what the organized Iron Age Druids did. Those Druids were far more than Priests. Remember that they were the PhD elite who guided society, including the Kings. Judges, historians, astronomers, mathematicians, political advisors and much more, the term wasn’t specifically about magic until medieval Irish law and other writing like the Mythological, Ulster and Heroic cycles centuries after any organized Celtic Pagan religion existed. (The Anglo-Saxons took to word Druid and made it their word for sorcerer, the common meaning at that time in Ireland.) The Romans were dealing with political leaders who would not comply with Roman rule, and Druids were part of that political resistance. Many Celtic leaders did comply, happy to have a strong ally against enemies like other Celtic tribes. (Germanic tribes sometimes did the same.)

As all this kept the Romans very busy in Britain, a lot of the religion seems to have been brought over by Gaulish soldiers. The two cultures, plus the Celto-Germanic Belgae territory, had been trading goods and ideas for some time before the Roman invasion, but these deities were brought specifically by Gaulish Roman warriors. To say that Britons worshipped Maponos is not exactly true. Maponos was worshipped by Gaulish soldiers stationed at Hadrian’s Wall. This is something that Brythonic polytheists need to consider. For example there is nothing Celtic about the design of the temple at Bath for Sulis Minerva. Some scholars believe that her name is a reference to Athena as “The Eye of Minerva” and whatever original deity was worshipped there (if any) has been long forgotten. Because the local people adopted the Classical curse tablets to Sulis in such large numbers, while the Romans did not, we know she at the least became important to the Britons. Their changes to the curse tablet structure (all of this is covered in Steel Bars, Sacred Waters) give a fine example of Celtic people making new Roman ideas fit a Celtic cosmology. The Celtic British temples that have been discovered that were native without any known outside influence (although we can be sure new ideas did spread) have no names of deities.

As the Britons were hiring Romans to build temples, it’s odd that they don’t have the doors where they’d be in Rome. Depending on the type of temple, Roman temples had different orientations. In Indo-European religions the deities (“shining Celestial ones”) are in or come from the East, so we face East to welcome them. Statues of them look at us, facing West. If you watch the sun and night sky, all the lights in the Heavens appear over the Eastern horizon, moving across the sky in a Southern half circle, with all of them setting in the West. This changes in different linguistic “daughters” of proto-Indo-European culture, but generally is still found as a rather common orientation for temples and ritual  movement. Deities about death or the Underworld often have a different orientation.

All  the Celtic temples found in Britain have the person enter from the Southwest, facing the Northeast side of the temple. They  already had the usual porch circling the temple, like in Gaul, for walking/dancing the typical ritual circle around the holy object, so we can safely assume that at the heart of the ritual – going face -to- face with the deities – Britons were used to facing them looking Northeast. After all, they paid for these temples. As walking the Celtic circle(s) around the sacred space would have occurred before entering the temple, there’s no reason to assume they did any other movements when in the temple where the deity statues were kept.

I believe other Celtic peoples may have used the same ritual layout. As the Gaulish soldiers were an important part of the stone religious remains that have been uncovered, at least some probably were used to this orientation. Ireland was never cut off from Britain. Roman coins found at Newgrange show that even then Ireland already had a tourism industry. The Irish also were raiding and settling the coasts of Wales and the Gaelic speaking Dal Riada kingdom straddled eastern Ulster and western Scotland. Irish people in Wales probably were the first to bring Christianity to Ireland. And for a thousand years a trade route with similar art, tomb design and language, possibly proto-Celtic, culture connected Ireland with Britain and the Atlantic coast of Europe. There’s a 6th century BCE inscription to the pan-Celtic God Lug written in Phoenician script in southern Portugal. The Celts in Iberia may have also faced Northeast in ritual.

I propose that when setting up a Celtic shrine, especially to deities known to be worshipped in Britain, that it be in the Northeast, facing Southwest. That way when you approach it, you are facing Northeast.

This gives us a framework for Celtic ritual movement and shrine layout:

1. Circle the sacred space if possible. (As the sunwise/ clockwise direction is so common in Celtic ritual acts for thousands of years, that would be the correct direction.) Whether walking in a meditative state or dancing, there probably was the sort of ritual droning music as described in Steel Bars, Sacred Waters.

2. Everyone enter the interior space from the Southwest and face the shrine, which would be in the Northeast.

Every bit we recover is a priceless connection to the cosmology of our religion. I hope this helps others in their religious relationships with the deities.

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