Gaulish Festival Calendar: Telesphorus, the Most Famous Celtic Deity You’ve Never Heard Of

— During the first few weeks of January, Telesphorus is the focus of the Celtic Pagan who worships deities who were honored in lands conquered by Rome.

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Modern American Medicine Wheel and Nightmare Catcher by Heather Awen (not intended as cultural misappropriation, but was inspired by my frustration with white people selling parts of Native American religion and culture)

In the spirit of “indigenous interpretation” in which peoples conquered by the Roman Empire reinterpreted their native religion to fit the Roman world, I have found many dates work for honoring the Gaulish and Brythonic deities. We start the year with the Festival of the the Roman deities Aesculapius, his mother, Coronis, and His daughter Salus (similar to the Greek Hygieia), as the time for honoring the important and ancient Gaulish God Telesphorus and the Gaulish Goddess Sirona.

The Roman festival was held during the first weeks of January, but worship of these Gods began with the ancient Greeks. Asklepios is the Greek name of Aesculapius, the son of Apollo. The staff with a snake wrapped around it that is still used as a symbol for medical professionals was originally that of Asklepios. He was part of the quest for the Golden Fleece and a student of Chiron. According to the Romans in 291 B.C.E., the healing God moved to Rome in the following manner:

“The Romans on account of a pestilence, at the instructions of the Sibylline books, sent ten envoys under the leadership of Quintus Ogulnius to bring Aesculapius from Epidaurus. When they had arrived there and were marveling at the huge statue of the god, a serpent glided from the temple, an object of veneration rather than horror, and to the astonishment of all made its way through the midst of the city to the Roman ship, and curled itself up in the tent of Ogulnius… And when the ship was sailing up the Tiber, the serpent leaped on the nearby island, where a temple was established to him. The pestilence subsided with astonishing speed.” (Anon, On famous Men 12, 1–3 L&R)

The worship of Aesculapius made its way to Britain where six inscriptions have been recovered. They are evenly distributed in the northern and southern regions, with two written in Greek. Even in the 11th century medical manuscript Medicina de Quadrupedibus an image of Aesculapius survived.

If we follow the Roman calendar, Sirona should be properly honored on March 30, the festival of Salus (meaning “salvation”), but as Sirona and Salus both have the imagery of the Greek Goddess Hygieia, Sirona definitely could be worshipped today by Her devotees. I personally can never get enough of Sirona!

However, our main focus is on the once hugely popular Telesphorus. From Steel Bars, Sacred Waters:

Telesphorus is a very old Celtic God brought to Anatolia (Turkey) by the Galatians in the 3rd-century BCE. Statues of him as a dwarf in a cloak with a pointy hood have been found along the Danube River and in Anatolia. Pointy hood hats were typical male Gaulish clothing. Telesphorus was associated with the Greek God of medicine, Asclepius, and became the brother of the health Goddess Hygieia. Telesphorus is the God of recovery from a disease. He was brought back West with the Roman Empire in the 2nd-century CE.”

Telesphorus means “the Accomplisher” as He will not stop until the healing has been accomplished. We have so little information about the deities worshipped in Galatia, this knowledge is a real find. If Hygieia was His Greek sister, it wouldn’t be illogical to consider Sirona His sister as well, although the two were never associated in the Gallo-Roman world as far as I’m aware. Little metal statuettes of a gnome with a pointy cap have been found in the Gallo-Roman era. They actually are made in two pieces: the Telesphorus-looking man is lifted to reveal an erect penis with legs. Are these later Roman images of the Accomplisher?

The southern Gauls had chosen to adopt parts of Greek culture including the deities Apollo and Hermes. I’ve often wondered if the worship of Hermes is why the Gauls so readily took to the worship of Mercury, a Roman God even the Romans did not worship with such passion. Was Hermes already firmly established in some Gaulish communities as the God of magic, that the Gaulish Mercury – more as Hermes – was naturally understood as another title for Lug? Then Mercury became more… Mercury over time? Apollo was later adopted by the Romans during a plague, when Telesphorus was already adopted by the Greeks.

Telesphorus is a wonderful reminder that trade of goods, ideas and deities was never a one-way exchange. An ancient healing God of the Gauls, He went with them on their eastern migration. He was almost definitely worshipped in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The healing powers of Telesphorus must have been so consistent, He was constantly called upon by the ill and injured as well as their healers. His fame brought Him to ancient Greece, where He was fit into the primary family of the deities of healing. While still being worshipped by the Galatians and eastern Gauls, the Romans took up His cult and carried it back west. It went even further than in the past, arriving on the isle of the Britons, where the multicultural Roman soldiers in the north and the more cosmopolitan Britons in the south joined in honoring Telesphorus.

If Telesphorus is one of the longest-worshipped Celtic deities and one whose devotees were quite possibly the most wide spread, from across most of Europe and into Asia, why haven’t you heard of Him? People seem to like myths – even if they were written in confusing fragments by Christians with regional political agendas after the formal Pagan religions were gone. Some people seem to think that there’s an actual ancient book called the Irish Mythological Cycle that contains all the full stories of the Tuatha De Danann. Then from that, we find all the information about the Gaelic deities. In reality it’s much messier, with lots of the Bible, bits of Roman era history, and modern commentary about Ireland’s provinces and the Viking invasion revised and woven into the stories so they’d have meaning that the people then understood. Different myths or different versions of the same stories are found in different manuscripts. Meanwhile, folk tales and fairy lore are included with a cautious optimism, often forgetting that many people writing about the Celtic peoples in the Victorian age were occultists or educated in Classical mythology. Clearly many knew what they wanted to find and made their conversations with rural Christian communities fit their theories. There’s nothing wrong with using these sources as long as you understand the motives and perspectives of the authors. Most Pagan books give you a version of a deity someone modern created without looking at the source material, based on their religious needs, and tend to be the least reliable.

Humans are storytellers. We create narratives about ourselves, about those around us, about current events, about the past and even the future with our hopes and anxieties, filtered through a cultural and personal lens. We naturally want narratives about our deities. Yet one reason why I feel drawn to the less known Celtic deities is because there’s no one else’s filter between me and the God. Telesphorus tells me who He is by telling me what he does: Accomplishes the healing that is needed. Centuries of worship in three cultures (or four, if you don’t include the Britons as Celts because they were never called Celts unlike those tribes in Iberia and Gaul) tells me that He’s good at what he does. His inclusion into the Greek family of divine healers tells me that He works well with other deities. We have a team player who no matter where or when healing must be accomplished, He will do it.

From that, I begin a relationship by making offerings and having conversations that are mostly one sided as I discuss my unhealthy past with medical “professionals” mainstream and alternative who took my money and took me for a hell ride, the effects of multiple misdiagnoses on my sense of identity, gratitude for how it’s made me firsthand aware of other people’s medical and emotional needs in a wide range of disorders, plus I mention my own health concerns, goals and requirements.

Sometimes I meditate on images of Him in copyrighted photos from museums. I imagine the people who came to Him in so many places, their clothes, their concerns, their body language pleading for help. I ask Him to guide my doctor. I visualize Him giving me a physical mostly thinking of the Greek humors, astrology and ideas of diet, fresh air and exercise, but also so much more than any one modality can provide – kind of like my doctor who is a MD and DO, training with a Naturopathic doctor especially in homeopathic remedies and herbs, and work history in pharmacies and health food stores. Telesphorus and I work together if the meditation leads to mystical union, a blissful non-me state of nothing and everything, which I owe to years as a girl with a lot of Hindu and Sikh yoga and meditation for my religious training.

The Ceremony

During the first few weeks of January, Telesphorus is the focus of the Celtic Pagan who worships deities who were honored in lands conquered by Rome. Of course He can be honored by other Pagans, including Gaelic polytheists, and those who worship the deities of Greece and Rome. Telesphorus is, like I said, a team player so regardless of what other deities you worship, He’ll join in like a visiting physician, respectful of His colleagues. After all, They all are concerned about their devotee/patient’s recovery, not inter-pantheon bickering. (That seems to be the angry work of xenophobic humans who want to control those they worship.)

Offerings are for you to determine. Grains, fruits, statuettes, wine and more were common offerings in Roman Empire, as was the building of shrines. Celts (and Britons, if we’re going to separate them like some scholars now do) seemed to prefer broken (ritually killed so they are sacred ie sacrificed) art, jewelry and weapons, along with pottery filled with food and drink (wine, ale) wrapped in beautifully woven fabrics. All cultures sacrificed animals, but they butchered all their own meat and were well trained in it. Very few of us have to daily kill our own animals daily so we do not have the skills to do it properly and a poorly performed sacrifice is a very bad omen worldwide. The Celts did not offer wild, hunted animals, but instead sacrificed the domestic ones of their farms. I actually have offered organic animal crackers and found that they were just as appreciated as the boar jerky my mother found. It’s suspected that dairy products were offerings as well, as cheese has been found in bogs where sacrifices were common (although maybe just as a way to preserve it for later), and insular Celtic folklore says to leave out cream for the Good People.

Roman and Celtic festivals had music and feasts, along with Priests reciting prose or poetry perfectly (in Rome if the Priest made a mistake, he had to start over; we don’t know how the Gauls did it) and performing divination to understand the messages from the deities. The rural Roman rites often had peasants dancing and in the city Priests often danced. The Celts typically walked or danced (we don’t know how they moved) in a clockwise circle to start ceremonies, possibly for long times around a pole statue of the deity. Both cultures met in sacred groves and at rivers and lakes.

I’m currently battling a medication-resistant form of thrush while my hyperreactive immune disorder Mast Cell Activation Syndrome is triggered by work on an apartment in my building and the neighborhood wood smoke that doesn’t let up due to the school break. My mother who also has MCAS is battling the insomnia, fatigue, and brain fog with me, as our toxic loads grow daily. Telesphorus will be greatly welcomed into our home!

May you be well!

 

* If you are interested in scholarly research about Pagan Roman culture and religion (which I find helpful for imaging the world of the Gauls and Iberian Celts), check out the Nova Roma website. It’s where I got my Roman calendar. Their information is also available in books, which I quite like.

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