Accessories of Celtic Cults

By J. A. MacCulloch.

Druid Temple


In primitive religion the place of worship is seldom a temple made with hands, but rather an enclosed space in which the symbol or image of the god stands. The sacredness of the god makes the place of his cult sacred. Often an open space in the forest is the scene of the regular cult. There the priests perform the sacred rites; none may enter it but themselves; and the trembling worshipper approaches it with awe lest the god should slay him if he came too near.

The earliest temples of the Gauls were sacred groves, one of which, near Massilia, is described by Lucan. No bird built in it, no animal lurked near, the leaves constantly shivered when no breeze stirred them. Altars stood in its midst, and the images of the gods were misshapen trunks of trees. Every tree was stained with sacrificial blood. The poet then describes marvels heard or seen in the grove—the earth groaning, dead yews reviving, trees surrounded with flame yet not consumed, and huge serpents twining round the oaks. The people feared to approach the grove, and even the priest would not walk there at midday or midnight lest he should then meet its divine guardian.[953] Dio speaks of human sacrifices offered to Andrasta in a British grove, and in 61 A.D. the woods of Mona, devoted to strange rites, were cut down by Roman soldiers.[954] The sacred Dru-nemeton of the Galatian Celts may have been a grove.[955] Place-names also point to the widespread existence of such groves, since the word nemeton, “grove,” occurs in many of them, showing that the places so called had been sites of a cult. In Ireland, fid-nemed stood for “sacred grove.”[956] The ancient groves were still the objects of veneration in Christian times, though fines were levied against those who still clung to the old ways.[957]

Sacred groves were still used in Gallo-Roman times, and the Druids may have had a preference for them, a preference which may underlie the words of the scholiast on Lucan, that “the Druids worship the gods without temples in woods.” But probably more elaborate temples, great tribal sanctuaries, existed side by side with these local groves, especially in Cisalpine Gaul, where the Boii had a temple in which were stored the spoils of war, while the Insubri had a similar temple.[958] These were certainly buildings. The “consecrated place” in Transalpine Gaul, which Caesar mentions, and where at fixed periods judgments were given, might be either a grove or a temple. Caesar uses the same phrase for sacred places where the spoils of war were heaped; these may have been groves, but Diodorus speaks of treasure collected in “temples and sacred places” ([Greek: en tois hierois chai temenesin]), and Plutarch speaks of the “temple” where the Arverni hung Caesar’s sword.[959] The “temple” of the Namnite women, unroofed and re-roofed in a day, must have been a building. There is no evidence that the insular Celts had temples. In Gallo-Roman times, elaborate temples, perhaps occupying sites of earlier groves or temples, sprang up over the Romano-Celtic area. They were built on Roman models, many of them were of great size, and they were dedicated to Roman or Gallo-Roman divinities.[960] Smaller shrines were built by grateful worshippers at sacred springs to their presiding divinity, as many inscriptions show. In the temples stood images of the gods, and here were stored sacred vessels, sometimes made of the skulls of enemies, spoils of war dedicated to the gods, money collected for sacred purposes, and war standards, especially those which bore divine symbols.

The old idea that stone circles were Druidic temples, that human sacrifices were offered on the “altar-stone,” and libations of blood poured into the cup-markings, must be given up, along with much of the astronomical lore associated with the circles. Stonehenge dates from the close of the Neolithic Age, and most of the smaller circles belong to the early Bronze Age, and are probably pre-Celtic. In any case they were primarily places of sepulture. As such they would be the scene of ancestor worship, but yet not temples in the strict sense of the word.  The larger circles, burial-places of great chiefs or kings, would become central places for the recurring rites of ghost-worship, possibly also rallying places of the tribe on stated occasions. But whether this ghost-worship was ever transmuted into the cult of a god at the circles is uncertain and, indeed, unlikely. The Celts would naturally regard these places as sacred, since the ghosts of the dead, even those of a vanquished people, are always dangerous, and they also took over the myths and legends[961] associated with them, such, e.g., as regarded the stones themselves, or trees growing within the circles, as embodiments of the dead, while they may also have used them as occasional places of secondary interment. Whether they were ever led to copy such circles themselves is uncertain, since their own methods of interment seem to have been different. We have seen that the gods may in some cases have been worshipped at tumuli, and that Lugnasad was, at some centres, connected with commemorative cults at burial-places (mounds, not circles). But the reasons for this are obscure, nor is there any hint that other Celtic festivals were held near burial mounds. Probably such commemorative rites at places of sepulture during Lugnasad were only part of a wider series occurring elsewhere, and we cannot assume from such vague notices that stone circles were Druidic temples where worship of an Oriental nature was carried on.

Professor Rhys is disposed to accept the old idea that Stonehenge was the temple of Apollo in the island of the Hyperboreans, mentioned by Diodorus, where the sun-god was worshipped.[962] But though that temple was circular, it had walls adorned with votive offerings. Nor does the temple unroofed yearly by the Namnite women imply a stone circle, for there is not the slightest particle of evidence that the circles were ever roofed in any way.[963] Stone circles with mystic trees growing in them, one of them with a well by which entrance was gained to Tir fa Tonn, are mentioned in Irish tales. They were connected with magic rites, but are not spoken of as temples.[964]



Lucan describes realistically the awful sacrifices of the Gauls on cruel altars not a whit milder than those of Diana, and he speaks of “altars piled with offerings” in the sacred grove at Marseilles.[965] Cicero says that human victims were sacrificed on altars, and Tacitus describes the altars of Mona smeared with human blood.[966] “Druids’ altars” are mentioned in the Irish “Expedition of Dathi,” and Cormac speaks of indelba, or altars adorned with emblems.[967] Probably many of these altars were mere heaps of stone like the Norse horg, or a great block of stone. Some sacrifices, however, were too extensive to be offered on an altar, but in such cases the blood would be sprinkled upon it. Under Roman influence, Celtic altars took the form of those of the conquerors, with inscriptions containing names of native or Roman gods and bas-reliefs depicting some of these. The old idea that dolmens were Celtic altars is now abandoned. They were places of sepulture of the Neolithic or early Bronze Age, and were originally covered with a mound of earth. During the era of Celtic paganism they were therefore hidden from sight, and it is only in later times that the earth has been removed and the massive stones, arranged so as to form a species of chamber, have been laid bare.



The Gauls, according to Caesar, possessed plurima simulacra of the native Mercury, but he does not refer to images of other gods. We need not infer from this that the Celts had a prejudice against images, for among the Irish Celts images are often mentioned, and in Gaul under Roman rule many images existed.

The existence of images among the Celts as among other peoples, may owe something to the cult of trees and of stones set up over the dead. The stone, associated with the dead man’s spirit, became an image of himself, perhaps rudely fashioned in his likeness. A rough-hewn tree trunk became an image of the spirit or god of trees. On the other hand, some anthropomorphic images, like the palaeolithic or Mycenaean figurines, may have been fashioned without the intermediary of tree-trunk or stone pillar. Maximus of Tyre says that the Celtic image of Zeus was a lofty oak, perhaps a rough-hewn trunk rather than a growing tree, and such roughly carved tree-trunks, images of gods, are referred to by Lucan in his description of the Massilian grove.[968] Pillar stones set up over the graves of the dead are often mentioned in Irish texts. These would certainly be associated with the dead; indeed, existing legends show that they were believed to be tenanted by the ghosts and to have the power of motion. This suggests that they had been regarded as images of the dead. Other stones honoured in Ireland were the cloch labrais, an oracular stone; the lia fail, or coronation stone, which shouted when a king of the Milesian race seated himself upon it; and the lia adrada, or stone of adoration, apparently a boundary stone.[969] The plurima simulacra of the Gaulish Mercury may have been boundary stones like those dedicated to Mercury or Hermes among the Romans and Greeks.  Did Caesar conclude, or was it actually the case, that the Gauls dedicated such stones to a god of boundaries who might be equated with Mercury? Many such standing stones still exist in France, and their number must have been greater in Caesar’s time. Seeing them the objects of superstitious observances, he may have concluded that they were simulacra of a god. Other Romans besides himself had been struck by the resemblance of these stones to their Hermai, and perhaps the Gauls, if they did not already regard them as symbols of a god, acquiesced in the resemblance. Thus, on the menhir of Kervadel are sculptured four figures, one being that of Mercury, dating from Gallo-Roman times.  Beneath another, near Peronne, a bronze statuette of Mercury was discovered.[970] This would seem to show that the Gauls had a cult of pillar stones associated with a god of boundaries. Caesar probably uses the word simulacrum in the sense of “symbol” rather than “image,” though he may have meant native images not fully carved in human shape, like the Irish cermand, cerstach, ornamented with gold and silver, the “chief idol” of north Ireland, or like the similarly ornamented “images” of Cromm Cruaich and his satellites.[971] The adoration of sacred stones continued into Christian times and was much opposed by the Church.[972] S. Samson of Dol (sixth century) found men dancing round a simulacrum abominabile, which seems to have been a kind of standing stone, and having besought them to desist, he carved a cross upon it.[973] Several menhirion in France are now similarly ornamented.[974]

The number of existing Gallo-Roman images shows that the Celts had not adopted a custom which was foreign to them, and they must have already possessed rude native images. The disappearance of these would be explained if they were made of perishable material. Wooden images of the Matres have been occasionally found, and these may be pre-Roman. Some of the images of the three-headed and crouching gods show no sign of Roman influences in their modelling, and they may have been copied from earlier images of wood. We also find divine figures on pre-Roman coins.[975] Certain passages in classical writings point to the existence of native images. A statue of a goddess existed in a temple at Marseilles, according to Justin, and the Galatian Celts had images of the native Juppiter and Artemis, while the conquering Celts who entered Rome bowed to the seated senators as to statues of the gods.[976] The Gauls placed rich ornaments on the images of the gods, and presumably these were native “idols.”

“Idols” are frequently mentioned in Irish texts, and there is no doubt that these mean images.[977] Cormac mac Art refused to worship “idols,” and was punished by the Druids.[978] The idols of Cromm Cruaich and his satellites, referred to in the Dindsenchas, were carved to represent the human form; the chief one was of gold, the others of stone. These were miraculously overthrown by S. Patrick; but in the account of the miracle the chief idol was of stone adorned with gold and silver, the others, numbering twelve, were ornamented with bronze.[979] They stood in Mag Slecht, and similar sacred places with groups of images evidently existed elsewhere, e.g. at Rath Archaill, “where the Druid’s altars and images are.”[980] The lady Cessair, before coming to Ireland, is said to have taken advice of her laimh-dhia, or “hand gods,” perhaps small images used for divination.[981]

For the British Celts the evidence is slender, but idolatry in the sense of “image-worship” is frequently mentioned in the lives of early saints.[982] Gildas also speaks of images “mouldering away within and without the deserted temples, with stiff and deformed features.”[983] This pathetic picture of the forsaken shrines of forgotten gods may refer to Romano-Celtic images, but the “stiff and deformed features” suggest rather native art, the art of a people unskilful at reproducing the human form, however artistic they may have been in other directions.

If the native Celts of Ireland had images, there is no reason to suppose, especially considering the evidence just adduced, that the Gauls, or at least the Druids, were antagonistic to images. This last is M. Reinach’s theory, part of a wider hypothesis that the Druids were pre-Celtic, but became the priests of the Celts, who till then had no priests. The Druids prohibited image-worship, and this prohibition existed in Gaul, ex hypothesi, from the end of palaeolithic times.  Pythagoras and his school were opposed to image-worship, and the classical writers claimed a connection between the Pythagoreans and the Druids. M. Reinach thinks there must have been some analogy between them, and that was hostility to anthropomorphism. But the analogy is distinctly stated to have lain in the doctrine of immortality or metempsychosis. Had the Druids been opposed to image-worship, classical observers could not have failed to notice the fact. M. Reinach then argues that the Druids caused the erection of the megalithic monuments in Gaul, symbols not images. They are thus Druidic, though not Celtic.  The monuments argue a powerful priesthood; the Druids were a powerful priesthood; therefore the Druids caused the monuments to be built. This is not a powerful argument![984]

As has been seen, some purely Celtic images existed in Gaul. The Gauls, who used nothing but wood for their houses, probably knew little of the art of carving stone. They would therefore make most of their images of wood—a perishable material. The insular Celts had images, and if, as Caesar maintained, the Druids came from Britain to Gaul, this points at least to a similarity of cult in the two regions. Youthful Gauls who aspired to Druidic knowledge went to Britain to obtain it. Would the Druids of Gaul have permitted this, had they been iconoclasts? No single text shows that the Druids had any antipathy to images, while the Gauls certainly had images of worshipful animals. Further, even if the Druids were priests of a pre-Celtic folk, they must have permitted the making of images, since many “menhir-statues” exist on French soil, at Aveyron, Tarn, and elsewhere.[985] The Celts were in constant contact with image-worshipping peoples, and could hardly have failed to be influenced by them, even if such a priestly prohibition existed, just as Israel succumbed to images in spite of divine commands. That they would have been thus influenced is seen from the number of images of all kinds dating from the period after the Roman conquest.

Incidental proofs of the fondness of the Celts for images are found in ecclesiastical writings and in late survivals. The procession of the image of Berecynthia has already been described, and such processions were common in Gaul, and imply a regular folk-custom. S. Martin of Tours stopped a funeral procession believing it to be such a pagan rite.[986] Councils and edicts prohibited these processions in Gaul, but a more effectual way was to Christianise them. The Rogation tide processions with crucifix and Madonna, and the carrying of S. John’s image at the Midsummer festivals, were a direct continuation of the older practices.  Images were often broken by Christian saints in Gaul, as they had been over-turned by S. Patrick in Ireland. “Stiff and deformed” many of them must have been, if one may judge from the Groah-goard or “Venus of Quinipily,” for centuries the object of superstitious rites in Brittany.[987] With it may be compared the fetich-stone or image of which an old woman in the island of Inniskea, the guardian of a sacred well, had charge. It was kept wrapped up to hide it from profane eyes, but at certain periods it was brought out for adoration.[988]

The images and bas-reliefs of the Gallo-Roman period fall mainly into two classes. In the first class are those representing native divinities, like Esus, Tarvos Trigaranos, Smertullos, Cernunnos, the horned and crouching gods, the god with the hammer, and the god with the wheel. Busts and statues of some water-goddesses exist, but more numerous are the representations of Epona. One of these is provided with a box pedestal in which offerings might be placed. The Matres are frequently figured, usually as three seated figures with baskets of fruit or flowers, or with one or more infants, like the Madonna. Images of triple-headed gods, supposed to be Cernunnos, have been found, but are difficult to place in any category.[989]

To the images of the second class is usually attached the Roman name of a god, but generally the native Celtic name is added, but the images themselves are of the traditional Roman type. Among statues and statuettes of bronze, that of Mercury occurs most often. This may point to the fact that Caesar’s simulacra of the native Mercury were images, and that the old preference for representing this god continued in Roman times. Small figures of divinities in white clay have been found in large numbers, and may have been ex votos or images of household lararia.[990]



Images of the gods in Gaul can be classified by means of their symbols—the mallet and cup (a symbol of plenty) borne by the god with the hammer, the wheel of the sun-god, the cornucopia and torque carried by Cernunnos. Other symbols occur on images, altars, monuments, and coins. These are the swastika and triskele, probably symbols of the sun;[991] single or concentric circles, sometimes with rays;[992] crosses; and a curious S figure. The triskele and the circles are sometimes found on faces figured on coins. They may therefore have been tattoo markings of a symbolic character. The circle and cross are often incised on bronze images of Dispater. Much speculation has been aroused by the S figure, which occurs on coins, while nine models of this symbol hang from a ring carried by the god with the wheel, but the most probable is that which sees in it a thunderbolt.[993] But lacking any old text interpreting these various symbols, all explanations of them must be conjectural. Some of them are not purely Celtic, but are of world-wide occurrence.



Here some reference may be made to the Celtic cult of weapons. As has been seen, a hammer is the symbol of one god, and it is not unlikely that a cult of the hammer had preceded that of the god to whom the hammer was given as a symbol. Esus is also represented with an axe. We need not repeat what has already been said regarding the primitive and universal cult of hammer or axe,[994] but it is interesting to notice, in connection with other evidence for a Celtic cult of weapons, that there is every reason to believe that the phrase sub ascia dedicare, which occurs in inscriptions on tombs from Gallia Lugdunensis, usually with the figure of an axe incised on the stone, points to the cult of the axe, or of a god whose symbol the axe was.[995] In Irish texts the power of speech is attributed to weapons, but, according to the Christian scribe, this was because demons spoke from them, for the people worshipped arms in those days.[996] Thus it may have been believed that spirits tenanted weapons, or that weapons had souls.  Evidence of the cult itself is found in the fact that on Gaulish coins a sword is figured, stuck in the ground, or driving a chariot, or with a warrior dancing before it, or held in the hand of a dancing warrior.[997] The latter are ritual acts, and resemble that described by Spenser as performed by Irish warriors in his day, who said prayers or incantations before a sword stuck in the earth.[998] Swords were also addressed in songs composed by Irish bards, and traditional remains of such songs are found in Brittany.[999] They represent the chants of the ancient cult. Oaths were taken by weapons, and the weapons were believed to turn against those who lied.[1000] The magical power of weapons, especially of those over which incantations had been said, is frequently referred to in traditional tales and Irish texts.[1001] A reminiscence of the cult or of the magical power of weapons may be found in the wonderful “glaives of light” of Celtic folk-tales, and the similar mystical weapon of the Arthurian romances.


[953] Lucan, Pharsalia, iii. 399 f.

[954] Dio Cass. lxii. 7; Tac. Ann. xiv. 30.

[955] Strabo, xii. 51. Drunemeton may mean “great temple” (D’Arbois, Les Celtes, 203).

[956] Antient Laws of Ireland, i. 164.

[957] Holder, ii. 712. Cf. “Indiculus” in Grimm, Teut. Myth. 1739, “de sacris silvarum, quas nimidas (= nemeta) vocant.”

[958] Livy, xxiii. 24; Polyb. ii. 32.

[959] Caesar, vi. 13, 17; Diod. Sic. v. 27; Plutarch, Caesar, 26.

[960] See examples in Dom Martin, i. 134 f.; cf. Greg. Tours, Hist. Franc. i. 30.

[961] See Reinach, “Les monuments de pierre brute dans le langage et les croyances populaires,” Rev. Arch. 1893, i. 339; Evans, “The Roll-Right Stones,” Folk-Lore, vi. 20 f.

[962] Rhys, HL 194; Diod. Sic. ii. 47.

[963] Rhys, 197.

[964] Joyce, OCR 246; Kennedy, 271.

[965] Lucan, i. 443, iii. 399f.

[966] Cicero, pro Fonteio, x. 21; Tac. Ann. xiv. 30. Cf. Pomp. Mela, iii.   2. 18. 

[967] O’Curry, MS. Mat. 284; Cormac, 94. Cf. IT iii. 211, for the practice of circumambulating altars.

[968] Max. Tyr. Dissert. viii. 8; Lucan, iii. 412f.

[969] Antient Laws of Ireland, iv. 142.

[970] Rev. Arch. i. pl. iii-v.; Reinach, RC xi. 224, xiii. 190.

[971] Stokes, Martyr. of Oengus, 186-187.

[972] See the Twenty-third Canon of Council of Arles, the Twenty-third of the Council of Tours, 567, and ch. 65 of the Capitularia, 789.

[973] Mabillon, Acta, i. 177.

[974] Reinach, Rev. Arch. 1893, xxi. 335.

[975] Blanchet, i. 152-153, 386.

[976] Justin, xliii. 5; Strabo, xii. 5. 2; Plutarch, de Virt. Mul. xx.; Livy, v. 41.

[977] Cormac, 94.

[978] Keating, 356. See also Stokes, Martyr. of Oengus, 186; RC xii. 427, Sec. 15; Joyce, SH 274 f.

[979] LL 213b; Trip. Life, i. 90, 93.

[980] O’Curry, MS. Mat. 284.

[981] Keating, 49.

[982] Jocelyn, Vita S. Kentig. 27, 32, 34; Ailred, Vita S. Ninian. 6.

[983] Gildas, Sec. 4.

[984] For the whole argument see Reinach, RC xiii. 189 f. Bertrand, Rev. Arch. xv. 345, supports a similar theory, and, according to both writers, Gallo-Roman art was the result of the weakening of Druidic power by the Romans.

[985] L’Abbe Hermet, Assoc. pour l’avancement des Sciences, Compte Rendu, 1900, ii. 747; L’Anthropologie, v. 147.

[986] Corp. Scrip. Eccl. Lat. i. 122.

[987] Monnier, 362. The image bears part of an inscription ... LIT...  and it has been thought that this read ILITHYIA originally. The name is in keeping with the rites still in use before the image. This would make it date from Roman times. If so, it is a poor specimen of the art of the period. But it may be an old native image to which later the name of the Roman goddess was given.

[988] Roden, Progress of the Reformation in Ireland, 51. The image was still existing in 1851.

[989] For figures of most of these, see Rev. Arch. vols. xvi., xviii., xix., xxxvi.; RC xvii. 45, xviii. 254, xx. 309, xxii. 159, xxiv. 221; Bertrand, passim; Courcelle-Seneuil, Les Dieux Gaulois d’apres les Monuments Figures, Paris, 1910.

[990] See Courcelle-Seneuil, op. cit.; Reinach, BF passim, Catalogue Sommaire du Musee des Ant. nat.{4} 115-116.

[991] Reinach, Catal. 29, 87; Rev. Arch. xvi. 17; Blanchet, i. 169, 316; Huchet, L’art gaulois, ii. 8.

[992] Blanchet, i. 158; Reinach, BF 143, 150, 152.

[993] Blanchet, i. 17; Flouest, Deux Steles (Append.), Paris, 1885; Reinach, BF 33.

[994] P. 30, supra.

[995] Hirschfeld in CIL xiii. 256.

[996] RC xii. 107; Joyce, SH i. 131.

[997] Blanchet, i. 160 f.; Muret de la Tour, Catalogue, 6922, 6941, etc.

[998] View of the State of Ireland, 57.

[999] RC xx. 7; Martin, Etudes de la Myth. Celt. 164.

[1000] IT i. 206; RC ix. 144.

[1001] CM xiii. 168 f.; Miss Hull, 44, 221, 223.


This is taken from Religion of the Celts.





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