Celtic vs. Mediterranean Polytheisms

October 13, 2018 at 8:40 am 7 comments

In pan-polytheistic online discourse I frequently see assumptions about polytheism from different cultural or philosophical types of polytheists. For better understanding of where I’m coming from as an Irish polytheist, a previous post compared Celtic & Germanic polytheism. This is an attempt to compare Irish polytheism and a little about continental Celtic polytheism with polytheistic religions bordering the Mediterranean, specifically I’m thinking of Greece, Rome and to a lesser degree, Egypt.  These are generalizations referring to several spectra of cultures that existed (and still exist just in different forms) across a long time period. Feedback, corrections and critique are welcome and I’ll make note of changes.


Theology– Our theolog(ies) are very much up to us as contemporary revivalists to discover and develop. Beings in our lore and literature are not easily categorized as gods, ancestors, heroes and spirits of place. There is much overlap between them. It’s debatable how much particular gods were euhemerized by monks or whether the Irish Dindsenchas- that explains the legendary origins of place name or the tales of Mythological Cycle are more authoritative.  Even the question of whether a particular being is friendly or not towards humans can vary by place or even specific person! For example, Balor is a monster thought to symbolize the dangers of the late summer sun being too hot and threatening the harvest. He was defeated by the god Lugh in battle, the young, many skilled god who brings the harvest. But in the folklore of the Tory Islands the two were reversed and it was Balor that was honored!  The Good People are for the most part avoided and propitiated but certain individuals do make treaty and develop a relationship with a spirit or group of spirits. Sometimes these people are called fairy-doctors and act as an intermediary between the spirit and a local community.

Departmental Deities– I often hear people in Irish/Gaelic/Celtic pagan or Druid groups explain to newcomers that “unlike the Greek or Roman pantheons we don’t pigeon-hole gods into departments like god of love/sun/thunder.” Fair enough, but that’s also not an accurate description of either Greek or Roman religion. It’s an oversimplification that might fit a specific cultus at a given time or for your classical mythology class, but not for all times, places and practices. This is also the case for Irish gods. There also isn’t a fixed, organized pantheon with a set hierarchy, no “chief god” and the family trees of the gods and other beings contradict each other in different sources. You know, like in Greek mythology!

Purity– there is a concept of ritual purity, but it doesn’t seem to be a emphasized as it is in Greek and Roman polytheism. Here is an essay discussing concepts of purity/impurity in Gaulish polytheism.

Hubris (or hybris  in the original Greek)- isn’t really a concept that exists in Celtic religions. There are certainly boundaries of respectful and disrespectful behavior in general and in ritual specifically, particularly related to hospitality and reciprocity. Threatening the gods or spirits, especially with weapons or use of iron in general (esp. towards the Good People) are all certainly ill-advised. Boasting, especially among warriors was as common as it was in ancient Scandinavia. The consequences for going too far with boasting were social and sometimes legal in nature, resulting in a loss of honor and possibly being publicly satirized.

Images– statues and images in continental Celtic territories seem to be mostly a later Roman influence and earlier images seem to be syncretized or influenced by Thracians and Scythians. I occasionally come across the assertion than the Celts had a taboo on divine images, but that is likely a projection from Abrahamic laws against idolatry. That said modern Celtic polytheists do typically use various images for the gods in worship.

Lack of primary sources from pre-Christian times- as with most Germanic & Slavic traditions, we don’t really have anything recorded directly by polytheistic Celtic peoples themselves, We have secondary sources from the Romans who were fighting or trading with them, and later ruling over them but of course these have some built-in biases.  Texts written by monks in Ireland recorded native literary traditions and combined them with classical and Biblical references. Christian era folklore & customs end up being really important in Gaelic & Brythonic traditions because they give us more of an idea of everyday spiritual practice of regular people, particularly towards local spirits and the dead. Reconstructing continental Celtic religion involves study of archaeology and comparative linguistics, religion and mythology.

Similarities with Kemetic religion (from my limited knowledge of it!)

-Strong belief in afterlife, alternate realm, though in Celtic cosmology typically there is an Otherworld existing parallel to our own that is partly afterlife realms, but many other realms belong to gods and the Good People.

-the concept of Ma’at -meaning roughly justice & order in a cosmic sense reminds me a lot of An Firinne- which means truth in Irish, cosmic order with a moral dimension

-The ritual role of kingship, relationship to people and the land. This does not necessarily mean a need for a contemporary king/queen, but the concept of kingship/queenship and sovereignty is key to cosmology. Were Celtic kings/queens deified after death, as with pharaohs or some Roman emperors? Not as a rule that I’m aware of, naturally they’d be important ancestors, founders of particular dynasties, kingdoms, chiefdoms, clans were historically viewed as family patrons, and this practice has been continued with the revival of polytheism with key ancestors.

There are a couple more common pan-polytheistic topics that I am unsure of. What do we know about expectations of piety in pre-Christian Celtic societies? In Ireland, which is the area I’m most familiar, our sources of information about ethics are Brehon law, a system which continued with some modifications long after Christianization, and advice for kings on good behavior. I will have to check them to see if anything is said about piety. But my general feeling is that a sense of piety would be pretty different than a Greek or Roman one. Celtic traditions overall strike me primarily as animistic in character and secondarily polytheistic, they are more primal and localized and tribal. Those elements are definitely in place in both Greece and Rome especially in earlier periods and even later on in certain aspects- the cult of Dionysus seems like something Celts would totally be down with. Whereas Greece and Rome seem more primarily polytheistic.


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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Melas the Hellene  |  October 14, 2018 at 2:38 am

    Thanks for this interesting comparison. I’ll share some thoughts:

    Theology- From what I know, the Celtic traditions seem more animistic indeed and attached to natural landscape. Part of the reason for the development of the more complex polytheism in the Mediterranean, Middle East, India and China was urbanization and the social changes that go along with it. The Celtic understanding of Gods was (as you say) most probably tribal and localized, with room for the expansion of cults. It’s possible that through Greek influence in the colony of Massilia and from the Roman occupation of Gaul and Britain afterwards, that the Celts began to organize their religion a little in imitation to the Greek & Roman system, although it still remained by far simpler. Another important reason for the simplicity of Celtic theology was the prohibition of writing among druids. Once again, this differs from the literary complexity of the urbanized priesthood (beginning with Egypt as far back as 2500 BCE). As a traditional Hellenic polytheist with interest in the Homeric period, I am constantly wary of the philosophical theologies of later times.

    Departmental Deities- This is well observed. As I said, the Celts may have begun to imitate the Romans and Greeks in assigning fixed positions to Deities, but there wasn’t much genealogy or hierarchy, probably for reasons relating to the lack of centralized kingship or priesthood to determine such regulations.

    Purity- You are right. This was the case in Homeric Greece too, until later Egyptian influence through Orphism.

    Hubris- I was aware of the historical sources about the prevalence of Celtic boasting! I would not equate it to hubris, however, except in cases where Gods or ancestors are challenged or disrespected. There must have been druids in those days who regulated customs and (since they were judges) penalized offenders. In the older Homeric days, many Greek warriors boasted too!

    Images- I read somewhere in a book that the Celts at first did not approve of the Greek sort of imagery, but began to adopt it after influence from Massilia. Perhaps it wasn’t anthropomorphism they were opposed to, but rather than the too realistic depictions that did not square quite well with the animistic & natural character of their Gods. Again, I have urbanization in mind–Greek imagery before the rise of city-states was very simple, for example, Athena was represented by a piece of wood from an olive tree, and the Aegeans depicted their ancestors or Gods with simple faces in stone, yet without features.

    Lack of primary resources- True. I wish the druids would have written something!! But it wasn’t their fault not to do so, but only the fault of the Romans to colonize and conquer them (whether as polytheists or Christians).

    Kemetic similarities- I think this is a coincidence, arising from the universality of afterlife, some form of morality & order, and rules about kingship. As a rule, it was less complex among the Celts than in Egypt. Regarding piety, it was somewhat different in character, perhaps more tribal. Rules & customs relating to it were also probably regulated by druids who, however, weren’t organized or united.

    • 2. Yewtree  |  October 14, 2018 at 7:31 am

      Regarding the similarities with Kemeticism… there’s also a curious similarity between some motifs in Coptic art and Celtic knotwork (possibly due to vintage between Coptic Christians and Celtic Christians

      • 3. Yewtree  |  October 14, 2018 at 7:35 am

        * exchange between … (darn autocorrect)

  • 4. Yewtree  |  October 14, 2018 at 7:35 am

    On the topic of piety: the Romans had two words: pietas, which meant performance of the correct rituals and sacrifices; superstitio, which meant over performing the rituals, excessive fear of the gods. Did the Celts make a similar distinction?

    • 5. Melas the Hellene  |  October 14, 2018 at 9:11 pm

      Probably not, because the Roman distinction arose from growing dichotomy between urban & rural religion, whereas the Celts weren’t too urbanized. Their druids would have been considered “superstitious” by Roman standards.

      • 6. Yewtree  |  October 15, 2018 at 4:23 am

        Thank you – that’s interesting.

        I love the description (I think it’s in Ovid, not sure) of a rustic altar made of turf. I had assumed the difference was between rustic gods like Faunus and Silvanus, and sophisticated urban gods, but it would make sense that the urban polytheism would make that distinction between pietas and superstitio.

  • 7. Manu Adams  |  November 1, 2018 at 1:44 pm

    Very informative. Such studies can indeed shed light into the development of culture around the world. Thank you for sharing!


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