It’s a renewal of the worship of the gods, nymphs, heroes and genii revered in Gaul by the ancients. We’ll never be able to worship them in exactly the same way as our Gaulish predecessors, for too many liturgical details have unfortunately been lost. But we can still take up the task of honouring the immortals in the way most agreeable to them given our abilities, our knowledge and our age.
Great question! We try to do it justice here.
The druids are known to have taught a number of doctrines, including the immortality of the soul, metempsychosis (i.e. reincarnation of souls after death), and the revelation of the plan of the universe through natural phenomena (particularly astronomical ones).
None of these doctrines is ‘obligatory’ (not everybody is a druid). Ancient society knew no creeds. Religion was constituted through piety, rather than faith—and with good reason. Deeds matter more than words, and paganism primarily deals with the deed of worshipping the gods.
To be sure, a number of philosophical schools flourished in Gaul—first among the druids and the Greek scholars of Marseille, then in the schools of Autun and elsewhere. Here too, we are talking about discussions, arguments and even polemics that took place in a context of free thought. There was no question of submitting philosophers to a test oath (at least not before the ill-considered persecutions of Christians) for the same reason that the Scottish government does not do so to university professors today. In principle, scholars are free to pursue their research regardless of whatever the State religion might be.
Worship provides the meeting-ground for all those who wish to participate, regardless of their beliefs. Private theological speculation is all very well, but it need not interfere with participation in worship.
There is good reason to give two short answers to this question: No, and the Æneid.
Pagans, you see, recognize no sacred text as encapsulating all the mysteries of the universe (as some true believers assert with regard to the Bible or Qur’ān). There are, however, inspired poets (including Homer, Hesiod and sometimes Pindar) whose writings the ancients treated with veneration. Some might also confer a similar status on the writings attributed to Orpheus, on the Chaldæan Oracles, or on the works of the divine philosophers. In Latin literature, only Virgil can claim this most exalted status (without diminishing the merits of Ovid or Horace). Virgil’s quality was recognized in his own lifetime; even before the Æneid was finished, extracts were being published and eagerly read; the poem served as a core school text. Of Gaulish literature, strictly nothing remains. May it please the gods for us to discover a few works by inspired writers now forgotten!
In the meantime, we do know in what esteem Virgil was held—in Gaul, by the Gauls. The Georgics are little marvels, but it is the Æneid that expresses the destiny of the Empire that post-conquest Gauls inhabited; it is the Æneid too that offers, in Book VI, an explanation of mortality and the future of the soul in the afterlife. (Like the ancient druid belief, this involves transmigration of souls.) Verses of the Æneid were used in divination (if the Historia Augusta is to be believed). Finally, as a literary work, it is sublime. It has the advantage relative to the Iliad of being the product of a polished and learnèd literary tradition. Not a single verse is excessive. Even if it was left unfinished (a moot question), it is perfect.
Not at all. For us, the gods are real and distinct. It’s wrong to confound all goddesses, for example, with the Earth Mother, or all gods with the Horned God. Each divinity has its own characteristics, ways of acting, and individual attributes. Understanding how to honour the gods according to the tradition of one’s community is at the heart of polytheistic reconstructionism.
Real polytheism, that of the ancients, offers much richer and deeper explanations of the nature of the gods than any theology of recent invention. This is natural; the most brilliant minds of antiquity took up the question: Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Varro, Cicero, Plotinus, Iamblichus, and others.
To be sure, certain psychological or literary archetypes might well reflect the numinous work of the gods. In fact this is to be expected, since it’s in the nature of the gods to illuminate souls (including through literature), just as it is in the nature of the sun to illuminate physical bodies. But this is absolutely not to say that the gods are archetypes themselves. A ray of sunlight is by no means the sun itself.
Some modern authors have gotten into the habit of invoking the incomprehensible multitude of gods of Gaul and claiming that the Gauls worshipped only local nature spirits. But this superabundance is more apparent than real. The Gauls of any given region had a fairly compact pantheon. It’s only if you confound all the regional diversity in one supposed pan-Celtic pantheon that Gaulish religion exceeds the limits of easy contemporary comprehension.
It therefore follows that reconstructionists should adopt a particular region or tribe to anchor their religious practice. In most cases, the choice will be pretty simple; typically, you adopt the worship of the area of your birth, adopted home, ancestral origin, or particular intellectual interest. (At times, of course, a divinity can call us to devote ourselves to him or her even without any links of this kind. An individual might, for example, feel the call to dedicate herself to Apollo Belenus, from the South of France, even if she is a Canadian with Ukrainian roots. When the gods decree matters of this kind, it’s not our place to gainsay them.)
Once a particular locale has been chosen, the adept should try to understand its local pantheon, both as a whole system and in its components. There are many sources: inscriptions, statues, sacred places, and so on. There will doubtless be found enough variety in all of this to satisfy a wide range of spirituals needs, without the excessive complexity that might exasperate a novice.
The “wheel of the year” is a twentieth-century Neopagan construct. What we’re trying to do is to base ourselves on the concrete realities of Gaulish history and archæology. Now, we know that at least two calendars were used then: the Julian calendar, introduced by the Romans, and the Coligny calendar, of native origin. For those reconstructionists more resistant to syncretism with Rome, the Coligny calendar is of the first importance. Unfortunately, its modern-day use bumps up against a number of difficulties of interpretation, the first of which is where to fix the beginning of the year or the five-year cycle (different researchers have proposed that the first month, samonios, should begin in mid-summer, in mid-winter, or around Hallowe’en). Regardless, the Julian calendar, which was used at the same time as the Coligny calendar, gives us abundant indications on a variety of holidays and anniversaries. Even if most of this information comes from Italy, we do know some dates of specific importance to Gaul, notably the 1st of August, date of the federal festival of the Three Gauls in Lugdunum (Lyon).
In any case, neither the Coligny calendar nor the Julian calendar in any way favours a division of the year into eight. Both give us a great number of holy days, which really just don’t match up with the eight ‘sabbats’. These seem rather to have been pieced together from Anglo-Saxon folklore, Irish mythology, and Wiccan imagination. It’s better to abandon the whole schema.
The traditional religion of Gaul was certainly able to sanctify the seasons and other natural phenomena such as springs, the growth of mistletoe on an oak-tree, etc. But we must resist the modern tendency to reduce it all to a cult of nature. Cæsar tells us in his Gallic Wars, summarizing Posidonius, that “they rank in the number of the gods only those they behold, and by whose means they are obviously benefited, namely, the sun, fire, and the moon; they have not heard of the other deities even by report”. But he is not speaking of the Gauls. In this passage, Cæsar describes the religion of the Germans, whose ways he says to be “very different” from those of the Gauls (De Bello Gallico VI.21). The latter, let’s not forget, were endowed with a prestigious class of philosophers, dedicated to astronomy and mathematics and morality, who explicitly preached that the soul lasted beyond the limited span of a mortal life. This concern for the transcendental, this certitude of the immortality of the soul, are enough to assure us that the Gaulish gods for their part could hardly have been limited to the phenomenal and immanent plane.
Like nearly all the religions of its era—Jewish, Greek, Vedic, Egyptian, etc.—Gaulish religion certainly practised animal sacrifice. Muslims still do today. We reconstructionists do not, however, mean to revive this custom, which most of us consider inhumane. The more so as we know plenty of other gifts that are agreeable to the gods: incense, libations, coins, food, plants, statues, inscriptions, monuments, and so forth. Given the great variety of alternatives, we are hardly in a hurry to take up animal sacrifice again.
Before the era of Rome, the Gauls even practised human sacrifice. We shall never seek to justify this custom, which was as reprehensible in antiquity as today. Let us note in passing, however, that this sad fate was normally reserved among the Gauls for convicts or else for captives ... whom Rome at the same period condemned to die in the arena, consecrating them not to the gods but to the macabre diversion of the crowd ... and that Homer, among others, mentions a great many human sacrifices committed by the Greek heroes. So the Græco-Roman polemic against human sacrifice among the Gauls does reveal a good deal of hypocrisy. Exceptional among the Gauls, this practice was also known among practically all the other peoples of antiquity. (It even plays a central role in the theology of Abrahamic religions today—consider the sacrifice of the son of Abraham, or the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in expiation for Adam.)
Actually, it’s very simplistic to reduce the Gauls to an archetype of resistance to Rome. This stereotype would have surprised many of the ancients given that Gaul eventually became an example of provincial loyalty par excellence. (Northern Gaul under Ægidius and Syagrius was to maintain itself, by choice, as a loyal corner of the Empire in the very midst of the barbarian hordes; it was the last part of the western Empire to surrender to the Germans.) For every Vercingetorix—leader of the pan-Gaulish last stand against the Cæsar’s armies—there was a Divitiacus—a peace-loving, intellectual druid with numerous commercial and personal contacts at Rome.
The golden age of pre-Roman Gaul lasted for no more than a century before the Roman conquest. This fascinating period was marked by urbanization, the strengthening of State institutions, an engagement with the ideas and products of the Mediterranean region ... characteristics that would each develop still deeper under the ægis of Rome.
For simplicity’s sake, we can distinguish three periods of the history of religion in Gaul: from the Hallstatt culture to the middle La Tène; from late La Tène culture (around 120 BCE) to 70 CE; and the heyday of Roman imperialism, the end of which can be dated to the crisis of the barbarian invasion of 248 CE. Concerning religion in the first period, relatively little is known. Devotees of the Gaulish gods tend to associate with either the second period, largely proto-historic and relatively distinct from the Roman tradition, or else with the third, the golden age of Gallo-Roman synthesis.
In any case, it is unacceptable to perpetuate the Romantic portrayal of Celts as noble savages, cut off from all outside influence in their primitive purity. Whenever the Celts looked south, whether to Etruria, Rome or Greece, they found much that they admired.
Don’t panic. You first have to know a bit of what you’re talking about in order for mystical ecstasies and theurgical works to follow. The problem is that our conceptions of Gaulish religion are profoundly contaminated by Romantic prejudices on the one hand, and by ‘esoteric’ hocus-pocus on the other. A serious examination of the sources of Gaulish religion is a necessary preliminary for any more intimate knowledge of the divinity.
For example, many Neopagan authors claim that modern witchcraft preserves the remains of an ancient religion; but witchcraft was never a religion, any continuity with antiquity is hightly doubtful, and ancient religious authorities went so far in their mistrust of witchcraft as to prohibit it outright. It is imagined, on the basis of certain charismatic figures from Irish or Welsh mythology (Ceridwen and Aranrhod; Medb, the Morrígan, Brigit, etc.) that Celtic religion held female deities in special favour. However, all in all, male gods are clearly predominant both on inscriptions and in sculpture in Gaul (in particular Mercury, Mars, Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and Apollo). It is commonly asserted that the Celts had no temples, whereas archæology has revealed the remains of hundreds. We must first break free of false notions of this sort for real knowledge to have any place to flourish.
In any case, study and research are by no means to be feared. Many Neopagan ideas are founded upon outdated theories; it is very embarrassing to realize that what one has elevated into a dogma should no longer even be admitted as a theory. It’s far better to admit what professional research can teach us, and to keep an open mind towards what future discoveries may reveal. Otherwise, we fall farther away from the religion of the ancients only to take refuge in purely modern ideas: nationalistic follies of the 19th century, ideological polemics of the 20th, and so forth. And after all, serious study can be highly stimulating in its own right (this is one of the reasons why so many intellectuals dedicate their lives to it!).
For answers to further questions,
please see the page on the
nature of the gods