The Celtic peoples used to inhabit most of western Europe, residing from Spain to eastern France and from northern Italy all the way to Ireland and Scotland. They even had pockets of civilization in areas such as modern day Turkey. Different groups of Celts had different deities, though some were shared among them. Before going down the list there are several important things to consider.
- The Celts had many more gods than other peoples, as they would have a special deity assigned to each individual spring, river, and natural landmark. This list only focuses on gods with greater spheres of influence.
- The Celts can be said to have several pantheons, although several popular gods crossover. There are Celtic gods unique to Hispania, Gaul, Britain, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Gods on the British isles tend to be shared more between different sub-groups of Celts. Thanks to the preservation of their myths and legends by writers, the Irish and Welsh are the most well-known (Irish gods will be referred to as the Tuatha De Danaan, meaning “Children of Danu”, Danu being a primal mother goddess).
- Because Celts did not produce images of their gods, or write down their myths, preferring oral tradition, information on most deities is rather scarce. Any images or information comes from their Roman conquerors, who believed that they were merely their own gods under different names. As a result, any images of Celtic gods were of Roman design, and made to fit the images of characters such as Zeus and Apollo.
- Celtic mythology is further muddled by Christianity. Celtic legends and myths were put to paper by Christian monks and other writers. Along with Christianizing many aspects of the tales, it’s believed that many of the heroes and other characters were originally gods turned into human, though still very incredible and supernaturally gifted characters. Suspected examples are Cuchulain and Merlin. This list only includes names that are definitely known to have been worshipped as gods.
This familiar goddess was actually a Roman creation. Britain was finally conquered by the Romans under the rule of Emperor Claudius. Claudius was presented with an image of himself standing atop a defeated woman representing the island. Under Hadrian the woman started to appear in a far more dignified manner on coins and was even elevated to the status of goddess. The representation of Britain, Britannia was depicted as an Athena-like figure, paying homage to both the Greco-Roman world and the Celtic lands dominated by Rome. Like Athena, she wears a soldier’s helmet and a white dress. In her hands are a spear and a shield. She was later brought back on British coins in the 17th century. She became and still is one of the signature symbols of Great Britain, though the origins of the warrior woman on coins is unknown even by many British citizens. Although not an original Celtic god, she was nevertheless worshipped after the Roman invasion by both the island’s native inhabitants and its colonists.
Taranis is the Gaelic god of thunder and the wheel. Like other deities from Gaul, no myths survive about him, only his functions as a god. Ancient statues and art show him as a bearded figure, holding a lightning bolt in his right hand and a wheel in the other. Romans saw him as the Celtic interpretation of Zeus thanks to his apparent ability to wield and throw lightning. As for the wheel, it was associated the cyclical nature of time and the sun. The six or eight spokes on wheels corresponded to major, annual Celtic festivals, and in fact the calendar for the Celts was the Wheel of the Year. Although most information about him has been lost, Taranis can be seen as one of the most important deities of ancient Gaul.
Balor was not worshipped, but still a god. He was the king of a race of monster-gods called the Fomorians. At one time they ruled Ireland until the Tuatha de Danaan, the gods the Irish worshipped, arrived. Balor was a giant, and his greatest weapon was a third eye on his forehead. The lid of the eye was so heavy that servants had to attach ropes to it in order to pry it open. Once this was done, the third eye would destroy anything in its gaze. In the beginning of his myth, Balor rules over Ireland, even having dominion over the Tuatha de Danaan. He learns that his grandson is prophesied to overthrow him. Locking his only child, the woman Ethniu, in a tower, he believes that his fate is averted. However, she is rescued and eventually gives birth to Lugh, god of light. Lugh sides with the Tuatha de Danaan. In the Battle of Mag Tuired, the Fomorians and Tuatha de Danaan fight to decide the fate of Ireland. Balor keeps the battle in the Fomorians’ favor, even killing the silver-armed king Nuada. But Lugh kills him, with a spear or slingshot depending on the interpretation. Balor’s eye is hit and it is sent out the back of his skull, vaporizing his own army. Balor is associated with the concept of the evil eye.
Also known as Brigit and Bridget, Brigid is one of the most well-known Irish deities, and in a way is still worshipped today. She is the goddess of art, blooming of the spring season, healing, high dimensions, livestock, poetry, smithing, and springs. She was merged with the Christian St. Brigid. However, some scholars argue that, since St. Brigid is given such magical qualities and has conflicting and unclear biographies, that she is merely a Christianized form of the goddess. Many Catholics in Ireland and its neighboring isles still revere Brigid, and depending on how you view the saints, she could be considered a holdout from the pagan era. Although her Irish form is well-known, Brigid was actually a mother goddess worshipped all over Europe, known in Britain and Gaul as Brigantia.
Although performing the common function of a fertility goddess, Epona is more noted for her dominion over horses and all similar animals. In the ancient world, horses were an integral part of both land transportation and warfare, so much so that Epona received widespread popularity among non-Celts as well, with cults to her ranging all the way to North Africa. Roman cavalry in particular were fond of her. She is depicted riding sidesaddle on a white mare. Kings would symbolically marry her to affirm their royal status. Unfortunately, this involved actually having intercourse with a white mare and then killing the animal afterwards to distribute its body. The name Epona is familiar to gamers, as it was given to the hero Link’s horse in Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series.
Yet another goddess of fertility and animals, Artio was noted for a specific association with bears. One uncovered statue shows a woman, believed to be Artio, seated on a throne and holding fruit. Approaching her is a bear, evidently being fed by her. No myths survive about Artio, but I think she’s a very cool goddess just from the fact that she is associated with bears. Bears had religious significance in Ancient Europe. In addition to being symbols of power, several prominent animal-shaped constellations were named after them, such as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. It is debatable whether Artio’s bear association was related to hunting, protective power, or both. Romans saw her as Artemis/Diana, their goddess of the hunt who often transformed into a bear.
Lugh is the grandson of Fomori king Balor and the Irish god of light and crafts. Worshipped all over the British Isles, Lugh is most well known in Ireland, where he for a time serves as the king of its gods. Aside from killing Balor and bringing the Tuatha de Danaan to power, Lugh’s accomplishments also include creating a regular pan-Irish series of athletic games and fathering famed hero Cuchulain. Lugh is also the god of the spear, which in most versions is what he uses to kill Balor. His own personal, magic spear is incredibly sharp at its point, able to go through anything, and is one of the four great treasures of the Tuatha de Danaan. Many historians and others believe that Lugh was downgraded and heavily altered by Christian monks and scholars to the point that he became the leprechaun. This would indeed be a humiliating end for the savior and king of the Irish gods.
Cernunnos is one of the more well-known Gaelic gods thanks to several recovered pieces of artwork. These include the Pillar of the Boatmen and the Gundestrup Cauldron, showing Cernunnos as a man sitting cross-legged and adorned with stag antlers. Cernunnos, often referred to simply as the “horned god”, was associated with hunting, animals, fertility, and nature in general. Cernunnos, as a fatherly god associated with the male activity of hunting, might have a link to stag parties, as he himself has the horns of a stag. Thanks to his appearance, the “horned god” was equated with the devil in Medieval Europe.
2nd. Manannan Mac Lir
Manannan Mac Lir is the main Celtic sea god, and appears quite often in surviving tales. He is a protector of Ireland, as the sea surrounds it. He himself is a master of magic, and he rides the ocean on a chariot driven by sea-horses (of the mythical equine kind, not the real ones). Other portrayals show him in a much more simple boat, using an oar to row himself around. The Isle of Man is named after him. According to one tale, the name is given from another god, Mac Cuil. Mac Cuil is not much of a god and actually practices thievery. However, he eventually converts to Christianity, changing his ways and spreading his new religion all over the island he is on. Manannan Mac Lir approaches him and sadly notes that in this new age his name will be forgotten. Mac Cuil assures him that as long as he himself remembers the sea god, The Isle of Man will keep its name, and thus the name of its god, alive.
Morrigan, the “Phantom Queen”, is the Irish goddess of war and death. She is perhaps the most feared deity, as she often appears in one of her various physical guises to let a warrior know death is around the corner. She might appear as a hag washing his armor, or as a bird sitting atop his future corpse. Morrigan’s main animal is the crow or raven, birds noted for hanging around battlefields to scavenge on the dead. Morrigan is responsible for the death of famed Irish hero Cuchulain. With a crush on him, she uses various disguises to gain his affections. Attempts to approach him in animal form see her getting wounded. With each rejection, her ire grows hotter and she eventually causes him to die in battle, resting on his shoulder as a crow to assure his enemies that he is truly dead. Morrigan is also a triple goddess, a confusing concept in which one deity is actually three separate individuals. Morrigan is Anand (or Anu), a goddess of fertility, Badb, a war goddess who transforms into a crow, and Macha, the death crone. Other versions have Morrigan as the third of another triple goddess.
Other Notable Celtic Gods
Aengus Mac Gog: Aengus is the closest thing the Celts have to a full on god of love.
Belenus: Gaulish god of healing and light, Belenus was equated with the ever-popular Apollo and thus was highly favored by Roman colonists.
Dagda: Powerful father of the Irish gods, Dagda wields a club while holding a cauldron
Danu: Danu is the mother of the Irish gods and in Welsh mythology is Don.
Ogma: Irish god of eloquence and learning, he is also a great warrior and wields a Fomorian sword.
Sucellus: Also known as the “Hammer God”, Sucellus carries a long-handled hammer and a bowl of what cold be wine. He is believed to be the god of agriculture and wine.
Cunliffe, Barry The Celtic World McGraw-Hill Book Company. 1979
Ellis, Peter Berresford The Mammoth Book of Celtic Myths and Legends Running Press Book Publishers. 1999
Stewart, R.J. Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses Sterling Publishing. 1990
Various Heroes of the Dawn: Celtic Myth Time-Life Books. 1996
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia, HowardJohnson.com, & Google Images