Celtic and Roman Deity Differences in the Roman Empire
This is part of my series where Festivals for Roman deities are linked with the Celtic deities associated with those Roman deities. For example, a Roman Festival for Minerva is a Brythonic Festival of Sulis, or the 2 week Festival of Aesculapius includes possibly the most popular, longest-worshipped Gaulish deity Telesphorus. Once the Celtic tribes and cities were conquered by Rome and made part of the Empire, the Celtic leaders and merchants would have learned the Roman year, which was filled with religious festivals. Even if Celtic people at that time ignored the festivals (highly unlikely for the cities of Gaul and Iberia, Celtic men in the Roman military and Celtic slaves) it gives modern Celtic polytheists a calendar for honoring many deities. We’re rarely lucky enough to know the date of a Celtic deity’s festival from an ancient Celtic culture – Erudinus may be our only one.
Many people believe that the Romans forced the names of their deities onto the Celtic deities, but scholars have shown that the Celtic people made the association between the deities on their own. This would explain why so many Celtic Gods are associated with Mars in one place and with Mercury in another. Even where Celtic people eventually forgot the Celtic titles of their deities, worship often continued under a Roman name. This is explored more in depth in the upcoming post on the “native” Vulcan and “native” Venus.
Celtic deities don’t have a lot of specialization, aside from smiths and healers. They provide everything a member of the tribe could need. There’s no ancient Gaulish, Gaelic, Celtiberian, Brythonic or other type of Celtic pantheon. Tribes were affected by place and shared history, which is reflected in the hundreds of Celtic deities whose names we know. There’s no God of only war, Goddess of only love, etc. Usually Celtic deities are in a couple: the tribal chieftain good at everything and the river/land Goddess of the bioregion. The Roman artisans mixed Celtic, Greek and Roman symbols together, providing us with an understanding of how the Celtic person who paid for the sculpture described the deity.
Usually the Goddess in the couple might have crows and ravens symbolizing scavengers who eat the dead on the battlefield or the funeral platform, or a horse associated with leading the dead to the Realm of the Ancestors. The God often holds a spear and shield, a hammer or club. He is sometimes accompanied by a hunting hound, although a few Goddesses are depicted with dogs. (The lap dog who sometimes sits on the lap of one of the Matres is possibly a way women warmed an abdomen with painful menstrual cramps.) Goddesses might be depicted with a cornucopia of fruits and grains of abundance and also have the crow of death in war; as the land, She’s Who provides and Who the people fight for keeping. This makes it difficult to say “Oh, She’s the Goddess of health (or the hearth or the harvest).”
At first neither the Romans nor the Celts probably knew very much (if anything) about the other culture’s deity. It would have taken a few generations before the cults became uniquely, regionally syncretic. Hymns and myths about the Roman deities would be taught by the poets and in theaters and Roman naturalist statues of their deities taught Roman and Greek symbolism. When depicted by a Roman sculptor, Celtic Gods often wore a cape and held a spear in one hand, shield in the other, much like a Celtic chieftain.
(When a large mitigating Gaulish warband attacked the Oracle of Delphi it was recorded that the men laughed at the statues of the Gods, unable to image deities in human form. As it was a brutal journey there and about to become much worst, and because we don’t know what Greek person present would have understood why the Gauls were laughing, and because the only the Greeks left a written record of this attack, this may be inaccurate. Archeology has recovered ancient Celtic statues of deities in northern Gaul and Scotland. The Celtic deity statue was made from a large pole and had a roughly cut faces and large genitalia. Their eyes were glass and some wore torcs. In northern Gaul the wood statues seem to have stood in the center of a square or rectangular open sacred space outside. The ground was packed by people walking or dancing around the pole.)
Celtic sacred groves by rivers were considered healing sites to the Romans, who built their healing spas by fresh water. Were deities with Roman healing temples like Nodens (the earliest form of the name of the Mabinogi Gods Nudd and Llud and the Old Irish God Nuada) originally healing deities or did They gain that function from the Romans? The huge healing sanctuary at Trier dedicated to Lenus Mars (a Belgae tribe’s primary God) was by a river probably because rivers and valleys (the same word in Gaulish) tended to be an important Goddess. Lenus Mars defended His people in that land, including from plagues, but the Romans added the dorms for sick pilgrims. Even though Lenus was associated with Mars, His battles were now focused on disease. This should remind us that how the Celts understood Roman deities like Mars was not the same as how the Romans understood their deities. (This is somewhat similar to a Dahomey native in Haiti worshipping python lwa Damballa with symbols of St. Patrick. That St. Patrick is nothing like what the Catholic church would recognise.)
“(T)he locals selected particular elements from in-coming cultures, endow these with religious meanings different from those they possessed in Graeco-Roman culture and then creatively merge these with indigenous traditions to create totally new forms….”
– Ralph Haussler, How to identify Celtic religion(s) in Roman Britain and Gaul
It took a few generations to build the Romano-Celtic cults and I imagine that when they did, many Celtic people made offerings to their own deities during the festival of the related Roman deity. Even if they didn’t, for people who are resurrecting the worship of Gaulish, Iberian Celtic and/or Brythonic deities and seeking a calendar for rituals, this provides a lot of structure to adapt as desired. The Celts, typical for polytheists, brought in worship of “foreign” deities, like the Roman Mercury and Hercules. A Celtic Pagan need not worry about honoring only deities of one culture, as the Celtic tribes seem to have had varied pantheons based on the bioregion and tribal history. Many Southern Gauls adopted Apollon and Hermes from the Greeks in the 5th century BCE, so the lunar calendar from Athens may also have appropriate days for worship.
A Gaelic Reconstructionist worshipping Brig and Aine would seem very strange to ancient Gaelic tribes, when Brig was the Goddess of Leinster and Aine was the Goddess for Munster. No matter how we try, we won’t be able to recreate the pantheons ancient Celts knew; so many deities are lost to us in spite of knowing over 200 names. Also, those in Belgae had strong relationships with the North Sea Germanic tribes (the People of Ingvi-Frey), while those in Gaul adopted Venus, Goddess of gardens. How this would have continued if Christianity never appeared is impossible to guess except that some deities of new trade partners would have been become part of a Celtic people’s lives. Inclusive polytheism would have continued, especially as people traveled, married and had new bioregions to survive. Different cults would have formed around labor guild unions, river valleys, heroes and heroines, and a diverse understandings of past cults melded into rituals for modern needs. (Kinda like today’s well researched reconstruction -based polytheism!)
The Nemoralia and “Native” Diana
On August 13 (originally the full moon) Romans celebrated the Nemoralia. “‘Twas the season when the vault of heaven bends its most scorching heat upon the earth … and now the day had come when the torch smoke rises from Trivia’s [Diana’s] grove … and the [torch] lights twinkle on her lake” (Statius Silvae 3.1.55-57 LCL). This ritual for Diana was also known as the Festival of Torches, held at at Lake Nemi. Diana was know by many titles including Mistress of the Beasts, Grand Midwife, Goddess of the Moon, Lady of the Wilds, Guardian of the Oak, Friend of the Nymph, and the Protector of Maidens, many of which come from Her merging with attributes of the Greek Artemis.
On Diana‘s Festival, slaves and women were allowed to attend the ritual instead of working. All who participated washed their and decorated it with flowers. Diana’s sacred hunting hounds were also given garlands of flowers. All hunting was forbidden. The people walked in a religious procession to Her grove and lake (which most Celtic peoples would have understood from their own rituals). Diana received offerings of clay stags, ripe fruits and statuettes of mother and child. Her worshippers wrote their prayers on tablets or ribbons which were tied to trees. Later the popular festival was held on August 15, which possibly is why August 15 became the Christian Feast of the Assumption, the main holiday honoring Mary.
In his recent paper A Landscape of Resistance?, Ralph Haussler discusses the possibility of a Celtic interpretation of Diana in northern Italy:
“The goddess Diana is often associated with a villa context, as goddess of hunting. But we should not forget that Artemis/Diana has more profound meanings which we might need to consider when trying to understand her distribution pattern in the Transpadana and Liguria: besides a cluster in Novarese and Lombardy, we also find her between Turin and Ben. Can she have been an interpretatio of an indigenous deity? In this respect, there is a dedication from Casalino (Novara) where Diana is associated with the Matronae. But we also find a sanctuary for Diana at Savigliano (Cuneo). It was organised by priestesses of the local pagus, magistrae pagi, suggesting that this was an extra-urban sanctuary, a civic cult of the local ciuitas. Unlike many of our previous example, this sanctuary is not in a more marginal, hilly location, but it is situated in the plain, at the centre of a heavily centuriated area. Does this mean that
we are dealing with a Greco-Roman style Diana? Perhaps not since Diana seems to be a local phenomenon: nearby at Fossano, for example, we find a dedication to the ‘august’ Diana, but with the interesting formula sub asci, – a Celtic formula that is well attested in Transalpine Gaul and might therefore support the goddess’s more ‘native’ perception. And just north at Chieri / Carreum-Potentia, we find Diana again in a votive dedication Fonti Dianae Victoriae (‘to Fons, Diana, Victoria’ or ‘to the sacred spring of Diana and Victoria’?)….”
Another “native” Celtic Diana/Artemis Goddess was worshipped in Galatia, both in Camma where Her Priestess resided and further west. In Camma Her ritual focused on the hunt. Money was paid for every animal killed in the hunt, which was used for the Goddess’s Feast. The money also paid for Her sacrifice in gratitude for Her generosity. The ritual was similar to the Nemoralia in that dogs wore crowns made of flowers. Again we learn of a Celtic Goddess whose name was forgotten but who kept Her own identity.
Abnoba: Goddess of Mountain, the Danube and the Black Forest
Abnoba is a wonderful example of a Celtic Goddess of place. She is the mountain where the Danube River begins with the the Breg river, the Abnobaei montes are in the Baar foothills of the Swabian Alb near Furtwangen im Schwarzwald. Her name appears to have a connection with water, which would very likely be the Danube. The Danube was an incredibly important Celtic source of transportation, trade, food and life itself. Many deities are thought to be named for the Danube, including the Gaelic Danu. Abnoba was primarily worshipped in the Black Forest region.
As the source of the Danube, Abnoba had to be very important. In some ways She could have been viewed as the source of life. She may have served as the typical Celtic Sovereignty Goddess, with Her domain once associated with a tribe we don’t know. To the people in the area Abnoba must have had some maternal, royal and protective qualities much like Goddesses of other rivers. Her association (to the Romans) with Diana was probably because of Abnoba‘s importance in the Black Forest and Diana‘s home in the woodlands.
While many Romans honored Diana while far from home on August 13th, the Gauls in the Imperial military probably joined in the rite, while focusing on Abnoba. The Roman soldiers probably focused on Diana‘s powers over the hunt or the health of pregnant wives in Rome. The Celts don’t seem to have any deities related to the moon, so that aspect of Diana was probably not important to them. The roles of Guardian of the Oak, Mistress of the Beasts and Lady of the Wilds seem to fit Abnoba the best, while She would have been still much more. The forest, the river and the mountains – all of these and their benefits to humans are the gifts that are Abnoba.
Why Worship Deities of Distant Bioregions
For those of us not living in the Black Forest, how can we honor Abnoba? Maybe more important to others is why would we? Celtic religion is very place-based. However, so is Greek religion and Pagans outside of Athens worship Athena. The Orishas from different parts of Yorubaland have become a neo-Yoruban pantheon where the river Orishas Oba, Oshun, Oya and Yemaya have changed to meet the needs of their worshipers. We worship the deities Who care for us and there is no reason why Abnoba would not care for you any less than Athena or Ogun care for other people an ocean away from Their original home.
There are many ways Abnoba cares for us. Abnoba is present in the pure spring water of mountaintops, something incredibly valuable if we look at how much money people pay for it. Of course, clean water is worth much more important than a dollar amount, but people sometimes forget how much they are interacting with the deities. When you buy mountain spring water, you’re paying for the goodness that is Abnoba. (It would be much better for the all life if no one used plastic and instead properly filtered their own water and carried it in a metal bottle, or better yet water sanitation was done with Living Machines and tap water was clean and safe.) I don’t walk 5 miles to get safe drinking water and carry it back another 5 miles; do you? But we would, like many people affected by Climate Chaos, if we had to because water is that valuable.
For hunters, Abnoba could be an important Goddess of the hunt. Anyone against mountaintop removal mining could pray to Abnoba as She probably is offended by the dangerous harm caused by greed and fossil fuel addiction. People living deep in a forested area fed by a powerful river and those who live in high elevations where large rivers begin may develop a natural relationship with Abnoba just because they live where She’s used to being called. (Bear Mountain in California comes to mind.)
Isis had a temple in Britain where Her sacred Nile is nowhere to be found. Obviously deities are carried by their worshipers wherever they go. We don’t know the different myths about Abnoba which definitely would have changed over the generations, but She must have qualities that transcend place. Her devotees may make a pilgrimage to Her place of origin, and I hope that people do learn about the bioregional and cultural homes of the deities they worship. It’s the greatest way to understand the deity who has no mythology (along with linguistics and archeology).
But you may have a connection to Abnoba simply because She chose you.
Your Festival of Abnoba should feature clean drinking water. I would wash my hair in a way that won’t posion the water. A very small amount of baking soda massaged in the roots for the oil, rinsed clean, and an apple cider vinegar after rinse for the acidic shrine really works. A castile soap like Dr Bronners and a lemon juice rinse for blonde squeaky clean hair or a rosemary infusion for a healthy scalp and lush darker hair also works wonders. Shampoo is basically dish detergent. Real soap does not make bubbles of lather. If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t put in the water supply or on your skin, especially when honoring nature deities. It’s hypocritical. Deities are impressed by what we do. To moisturize hair, leave in light-weight jojoba oil on the ends or use coconut oil to turn frizzy into ringlets.
Dogs should definitely be honored, as the Celts valued their hunting hounds greatly. If you have any canine companions whom you want to include, get them a treat. (If you have many dogs or Pagan friends with dogs, you might schedule a quick rite at a dog park.)
As for flowers: the flower industry uses a few dozen times more pesticides than the agricultural sector! I wouldn’t let that near my altars (or my planet if I had that power). Try the farmers market, your or a friend’s flower garden or a wild field, careful to not take more than 10% of any species or kill any endangered species.
For those who are able, a hike or ski lift to the top of a mountain might be the best place to make an offering to Abnoba. (In Vermont ski lifts often run in summer.) Woodlands are also good places. (Remember to stay covered and check for ticks! Lyme disease and other tickbourne diseases are horrible! I speak from horrible experience!)
If inside, build an Abnoba altar with something to represent a mountain (photograph, pile of peddles, etc) and a bowl or cup of fresh, purified water. (Rain water might be fine, but check about the water quality of any local streams or rivers – if it’s bad, a very Celtic service offering would be to volunteer in river clean up work).
Have a bowl for your libations that you can pour outside later and a plate, tray, bowl or basket with your offerings. Ritually broken metal or glass bead jewelry (good sacrifices for Celtic Goddesses in general) and organic fruit are fine offerings. Carved wooden or ceramic stags add another Celtic layer to the offering, as Celtic people probably would not know the myth about Actaeon and may have thought about the deer Her forest gave the hungry. (Please don’t use the plastic-y “oven bake” modeling “clay” as it’s really toxic.) As deities change, maybe Abnoba likes Black Forest cake for all I know!
The traditional “circle the holy” procession three times sunwise is a good start for most Celtic rites. You may want to use traditional Celtic percussion of rattles and little bells (probably sewn onto clothing). Try chanting Abnoba to become more receptive to Her.
Next praise Her, say what you know about Her, and thank Her for the gifts She’s always provided human beings. Water is fundamental for life. We know that intellectually but don’t always act like it. We are made of water. Transportation along rivers meant information, trade goods, contact with new people. Trees hold the top soil of fertile soil, are the “lungs of the Earth” (with bluegreen algae), prevent heat waves, talk to other trees through their roots in the “wood wide web”, feed their children saplings through their roots and are home to an incredible amount of life, even when dead.
Tell Abnoba the offerings are for Her. Write your wishes in pencil on a strip of organic linen (or cotton) and thank Her again, knowing that She’ll be working on them if they fit Her needs, too, and will be best for you. Put the cloth with your offerings.
Circle your altar again clockwise, and gather the offerings, libations and cloth for a trip outside. You may want to go to a nearby river for this. Otherwise bury the jewellery and pour the libation into the soil. Then loosely tie your wishes to an oak or the tree that feels right to you.
Of course a financial offering to a dog rescue organization or shelter is highly appropriate! Adopting a dog if your housing, schedule and finances will allow you to be a good caretaker could be another modern offering. Planting native trees that you will protect or donating to an organization working successfully to end deforestation is a logical sacrifice for Abnoba and Diana, too.
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