Of necessity, this post will resemble material from my earlier book Celtic Flame. We are establishing ground rules here, what this column will address, and, insofar as it is using a similar format to my earlier work, it is going to resemble it to a great degree. The resemblance will decrease as the column goes on.
So, then, the Gaulish polytheism which is the subject of this column has a number of elements, among them are:
- The sources for this column, and the places where you can go for more information.
- The Gaulish identity, which is basic. This is not a modern ethnicity, and cannot be blood-based. It is open to anyone who is called by it. We will discuss how it relates to the modern Celtic identity, the modern Celtic nations, and what is known about how it was framed in ancient times. Indeed, we must discuss these issues, for they are very contentious.
- The ancient Gaulish worldview, including cosmic principles, worlds, ethics, and so on. While not as well known as the ancient Irish worldview, there is nonetheless a surprising amount that can be known about it
- The Dêwoi, the Gods and spirits that form the center of Gaulish polytheistic feeling and practice, however one sees them in theological terms. These are the best known of the elements of Gaulish religion. We have many sources that allow us to know their names, and something about their attributes.
- The Coligny Calendar, which is the Gaulish calendar, and is itself the subject of fervent academic debate, but which may allow us to reconstruct certain festivals and time concepts.
- The basics of ritual and worship, which have been reconstructed very differently by different scholars.
- The holidays, which can only be reconstructed very tentatively.
- And the institutional framework for practice, which of necessity must differ both from the surrounding host culture, of which we are not a part, and from the Gaulish culture of ancient times, because we no longer live in self-sufficient agricultural tribes, with economies based on land-holding, in which even the necessities of life are in chronically short supply.
These elements were only part of a total Continental Celtic tradition, which included elements like magical practice, poetry, music, crafts, and so on. Unlike the case of the modern Celtic peoples, however, other elements of the Gaulish tradition are for the most part lost to the ravages of time, history, and colonization. We have only a small amount of magical lore, and can reconstruct more, but the majority is now lost. Certain poetic forms and formulae can be assumed to have existed based on the examples of other Celtic and Indo-European peoples (see Calvert Watkins’ How to Kill a Dragon for examples from several Indo-European cultures), as well as the evidence of the existing inscriptions, but the majority are not recoverable. We know nothing about Gaulish martial arts and warrior techniques, though we can recover some words for them. There have been surprising efforts made at the recovery of Gaulish music, by musicologists, linguists and archaeologists, in projects like the Austrian band Imbraxton. These do not amount to a musical tradition, but at least allow us to have some limited idea what Gaulish music sounded like. The Swiss metal band Eluveitie, by the way, cool as they are, do not count here. They are modern folk-metal in Gaulish, not ancient Gaulish music, nor do they pretend to be. We also have next to nothing left of ancient Gaulish literature, though a surprising amount of mythology can be picked out of Greco-Roman texts. Gaulish folk dancing is also lost, though we have a couple statues showing that ancient Celts did indeed dance. The one thing of the ancient Gaulish cultural tradition, outside religion, that we may be able to recover is part of the material culture. We have a lot of examples of objects, especially metal work. From these, modern artisans have been able to recreate a lot of ancient techniques and styles. More will no doubt be done with the passage of time, and Continental Celtic design will survive to some extent.
To present Gaulish Polytheism accurately and completely, I intend to alternate informational posts that contain information on ideas, practice and history, with more personal posts giving some idea of how my Polytheism is lived out in daily life. A certain number of the dry, information pieces are needed, however, to set the groundwork for all others, so people will have some idea what I’m talking about.
Sources of Gaulish Polytheism: The discerning reader is probably going to want to ask what the sources are for any religious tradition, how we know where we got it. It is important to do this, though the situation isn’t so bad as for Irish and Welsh Paganism. There is still bad information out there, but for Gaulish traditions, which are less popular in New Age circles, the problem isn’t so much deliberate misinformation as out-of-date sources. Of necessity, the sources for a wholly revived tradition like Gaulish polytheism will be different than for living traditions like those of the modern Celtic peoples. A few of them will include:
- The corpus of inscriptions in the Gaulish language, mostly, though not all of a religious nature. These are often sketchy, and open to scholarly interpretation, but contain the best remains we have of the Gaulish language, and much on the names and natures of deities. Several of these are magical inscriptions, including important evidence as to cosmology and spiritual concepts.
- An even larger, indeed vast, corpus of Latin inscriptions from Gaul allows us to know much as to the names and attributes of the deities, as well as other cultural and religious information.
- Other archaeological evidence allows us to know much about the material aspects of worship, about sanctuaries, offerings, and so on, and allows us to know much about the social context in which that worship took place. We know much about Gaulish settlements, arts, crafts, architecture, agriculture, and so on from this evidence.
- The accounts of Greco-Roman writers form a basic source. They cannot be used uncritically, as they are the accounts of foreign observers who have nothing resembling objectivity, and use nothing remotely like sound scholarly methods. Moreover, they are sometimes hostile to those they observe. Nonetheless, the Greeks and Romans came to know their neighbors well over centuries of interaction, and their writings form a valuable source of eye-witness accounts.
- Early Irish and Welsh vernacular texts can throw a great deal of light on Gaulish practices and beliefs. They must, however, be used with caution. They were all written about after the introduction of Christianity, centuries after the period we are interested in. Moreover, they are from a different, if neighboring and closely related society. We cannot treat them as authoritative for Continental Gaulish religion, nor can we treat Gaulish religion as just a local version of Irish. But the vernacular texts can indeed be used, and throw light on wider Celtic traditions when used cautiously.
- The work of scholars in Indo-European studies and related cultures can shed a good deal of light on Gaulish traditions. They can show us the origins of words, and give us cross cultural information on mythology and ideology. Still, caution is in order. These studies are highly theoretical and open to multiple interpretations.
- The folklore of the modern Celtic peoples and of peoples descended from the ancient Gauls can form a source of knowledge. Such lore can give us information regarding practices of worship, and the belief in certain spirits or spirit-types that appear to have survived the ages. The usual cautions still apply, however. Modern Celtic folklore is not Gaulish, but that of a related people. And the modern descendents of the Gauls have undergone more than a thousand years of radical cultural change, including the adoption of a different language, and another religion.
- Certain medieval documents can also be useful for our purposes. From them we can get scraps of lore that might be otherwise be unavailable. Such documents, for example, give us much information on the spirits known as dusioi. The medieval capitularia can give us information as to late Pagan practices, by telling us what the Christian Church wished to forbid. However, we must be careful, for these documents come from so late a date, that we cannot be sure what in them is truly Gaulish, and what is of Germanic or Romance provenance.
- Finally, we still interact directly with the Gods, spirits, and ancestors themselves. This is commonly known today in Reconstructionist circles as UPG, an acronym for Unverified Personal Gnosis, and is commonly disdained. But it still happens, and even the people who disdain it usually make an exception for their own gnosis. It is perfectly true that UPG is subject to a very high rate of error. We often see what we want to see, and let our assumptions and egos blind us. The best way to prevent this is to check any insight received from spiritual sources against other information. If a given piece of UPG contradicts the lore as we have it, it should probably be viewed with a great deal of skepticism. However, to disdain UPG entirely, especially when dealing with a tradition like Gaulish polytheism, where so much has been lost, is to create the dry skeleton of a tradition without the flesh it needs to live again.