The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain

Natasha sheldon - March 29, 2019

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
Iron Age Celtic Head from Dorset. Picture Credit: The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

7. Severed heads were particularly sacred body parts.

Heads seemed to be particularly relevant to the Celts, judging by the regularity that they appeared as artistic embellishments on their metalwork. Some experts argue that severed heads had no particular religious significance and were just a popular decorative motif. However, there is plenty of evidence from classical sources and surviving Celtic traditions that suggest that the head had a sacred significance to the Celts- not just in Europe but also on the island of Britain too.

Strabo, Julius Caesar and Diodorus Siculus reported how the Gaulish warriors cut off and collected the heads of dead enemies after battle. They would proudly display the majority of these heads outside their houses. However, those of the most distinguished warriors became more than grizzly trophies. These heads were carefully embalmed and carefully stored in chests. Sometimes families kept them for generations and would not part with them for any amount of gold. This practice stemmed from the Celtic belief that the head was the seat of the soul.

By preserving and keeping the head of a valiant foe, a warrior could draw upon the deceased’s entrapped qualities and talents. The trapped soul could also become a guardian spirit. The position of skulls found in Celtic era earthworks suggests the people displayed them on the entrances of hill forts. In Britain, people have discovered some iron age decapitated heads in bodies of water. One of the most recent finds was in 2017 when a dog walker found the decapitated skull of an iron age woman washed up on the banks of the River Sowy in Somerset.

Archaeologist Richard Bunning believes the head was deliberately separated from the rest of the body and then deposited in the water of the river as a protective totem for a nearby settlement. This interpretation fits in with British Celtic mythology, particularly the story of Bran the Blessed, the gigantic ruler of Britain. After Bran was fatally wounded in battle, the giant asked his comrades to cut off his head and return it to Britain and bury it in the white mound at London- the spot later known as tower hill- so he could continue to guard his former kingdom. All the way home, even though Bran’s body was dead, his preserved head continued to speak and eat- a metaphor for the continuation of his soul.

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
Cernnunos as depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Picture Credit: Nationalmuseet. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

6. Certain animals had a sacred significance for Celtic Britains.

For all their love of warfare and skill at metalworking, the Celts were primarily farmers and hunters, dependent on the land for their livelihoods and lives. Animals, whether domestic or wild, were the basis of that life, providing food, raw materials and transport. So it is unsurprising that animals had a sacred significance to the Celts; not only as necessitates of life but as mediators between people and the divine.

Many deities became associated with particular animals that had a vital role in Celtic society. The stag, long valued for its meat and antlers, was the companion beast of Cernunnos, the god of fertility and forests. Horses, in the meantime, essential to the warrior caste, were associated with Rigantona, a goddess of sovereignty. Animals, however, were also seen as a way the gods manifested themselves in the Celtic world. Birds were particularly significant. In the Welsh mythological saga, The Mabinogion, the hero Llew turned into an eagle after his fatal wounding at the hands of his wife’s lover, Gronw. Later in the tale, Llew’s wife Bloddeuwedd turns into an owl.

One of the most famous British Celtic god’s linked to a bird is Bran the Blessed. Bran’s original name, Bran Bendigeidfran, means ‘blessed raven” and the Celts saw the raven as his bird. After his death, Bran’s companions buried his head on the mound that was to become Tower Hill so that the god could continue to protect Britain. The legend of the ravens of the tower of London, who must never leave lest Britain fall to her enemies, has its roots in Bran’s personification as a raven.

Animals, however, could also act as links to the spirit world in their own right. In particular, speckled salmon were associated with wisdom and knowledge, because the Celts believed it was the oldest and so the wisest of the animals.

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
“The Druids opposing the Romans.” Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

5. The Druids believed in Reincarnation and the Transmigration of the Soul.

The only written account of the druids in Britain comes from the Roman writer Tacitus when he describes their role in the British last stand on the island of Mona, now Anglesey in North Wales. Tacitus describes the druids as part of a shoreline show of resistance to the approaching Romans. He describes them as “lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations,” on the advancing Roman troops. Tacitus credits the druids with mysterious powers as he describes how the Roman troops were struck “with such an awe” that their “limbs were paralysed,” –until Suetonius Paulinus, their general reassured them and broke the “spell.”

Whether or not the druids constituted an organised, priesthood who oversaw Celtic religious practices is a point of debate. However, they did hold positions of authority in British Celtic society. According to Julius Caesar, druids trained for 20 years, studying bardic verse, natural philosophy, the stars and the ways of the gods. Women as well as men, recruited from the nobility, were eligible to join the order, which met in sacred nemetons or groves of oak that gave the druids their name.

There, the druids practised shaman like rituals, the details of which are lost since theirs was an oral tradition. Caesar, however, embellished his written records of druidic activities with vivid accounts of human sacrifice. These details barbarize the druids. However, if this was his intention, Caesar slipped up somewhat when he also mentioned that the basis of the druid’s beliefs was that the soul was immortal and would reincarnate after death. This central belief suggests that the Druids held a slightly more sophisticated set of spiritual beliefs than Caesar intended to portray.

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
Sulis Minerva. Picture Credit: Natasha Sheldon

4. Celtic and Roman deities combined rather well in Britain

The Roman conquest of Britain saw the Druids driven out and the sacred groves cut down. However, surprisingly, the Mediterranean invaders were happy to tolerate the Celtic gods. In general, the Romans had no problem with the deities of the lands they conquered- as long as they did not become a focal point for resistance. So it was Roman policy to allow their conquered people to continue worshipping as they pleased. In some cases, these native and Roman deities combine cults.

One such example of this occurred on the lands of the Dobunni tribe in southwest England, at a hot spring sacred to the Celtic water goddess Sulis. After the invasion of 43AD, the Romans quickly occupied the Dobunni tribal lands. Sulis’s spring just happened to lie along the River Avon, a vital waterway and the Romans were quick to establish a fort there. The hot springs were a desirable feature to the bath loving Romans. However, they were too respectful of the sanctuary of Sulis to appropriate it and kick the goddess out.

Instead, they decided to embellish Sulis’s existing native sanctuary with a magnificent new temple and bathhouse. They rededicated the new shrine to Sulis in partnership with the Roman goddess Minerva. The Roman’s reconciled the locals to the addition of their own deity by claiming the two goddesses were the same. And so Sulis became Sulis Minerva and around her sanctuary grew up the town of Aquae Sulis, which today is better known as Bath.

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
Statue of a Celtic goddess, probably Brigid (Brigantia). Picture credit: Paul Barlow. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

3. Many Celtic deities survived as Christian saints.

Combining with Roman gods wasn’t the only way many British Celtic deities survived changing times, for many survived the Christianization of Britain- as Celtic saints. The goddess of crafts, poetry and healing, Brigid or Brigantia, is just one example. The root of the goddess’s name, ‘brig’ means ‘high’ or ‘exalted’ one, indicating the goddess was an important deity. Clearly, this was the case for variations of Brigid/Brigantia’s name appears across the Celtic world. Although many primarily associate her with Ireland, the goddess gave her name to the northern British tribe of the Brigantes who particularly venerated her and the River Braint on Anglesey and River Brent near London.

As a saint, Brigid kept most of her divine attributes. As St Bride or St Ffraid in Wales, Brigid was a goddess of midwives, the household hearth and fertility. People had long associated Imbolc, the festival of first milking with Brigid. This feast became the Christian festival of Candlemass, which appropriated and Christianized many of the earlier pagan traditions that were designed to purify crops and animals to ensure fertility for the coming year.

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
London Mithraeum, Bloomberg’s European headquarters, London. Picture credit: Carole Raddato. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

2. Britain’s time as part of the Roman Empire saw it exposed to many new religions

From the mid to late imperial period, towns in Roman Britain was exposed to many new up and coming cults that originated in the eastern Roman Empire. These mystery cults offered both worldly and otherworldly benefits to their adherents. Christianity was just one of those cults. No physical evidence- such as public churches and iconography- exists for Christianity in Britain before the fourth century. This lack of evidence is most likely because, before this time, the religion was illegal and adherents needed to be discrete. However, this aside, it seems Christianity had stiff competition from a variety of other eastern cults.

One of these was Mithraism, a Persian cult that had become particularly popular with soldiers and merchants across the empire. Numerous Mithraea, the semi-subterranean halls were the cult’s initiations took place, have been found around Roman forts and major Roman settlements such as London. Archaeologists discovered the London Mithraeum in 1954, in what would have been the heart of Roman Londinium. First constructed in the mid-third century AD, by the time Christianity had legally establishing itself in the fourth century, it was still going strong. Christianity, it seems, had plenty of competition for the hearts and souls of the Romano British.

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
Mahatma Buddha. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

1. There is a theory that Buddhism may have established itself in British before Christianity

Two thousand three hundred years ago, the Mauryan king, Ashoka became a Buddhist convert and zealously began to practice his new faith. The previously warlike king abandoned conquest and began to establish free water, aid and hospitals to his people- a fledgeling welfare state. However, Ashoka was also determined to spread the message of Buddhism. So he began to send out missionaries-some of whom made it to Ireland and Britain.

According to David Mackenzie, Ashoka’s missionaries reached Britain before even Julius Caesar. The religion did not dominate the island as Ashoka may have hoped. However, this was probably because it blended with pre-existing druidic beliefs. The Celtic god, Cernunnos absorbed certain attributes of the Hindu Buddhist god Virupaksha – such as the horned snakes both gods are depicted holding. In addition, both religions held the common belief in reincarnation.

In this way, Buddhism could have survived in Britain. Its legacy may even have been felt in Celtic Christianity. Celtic Christianity was a moderate Christianity, more concerned with compassion than winning theological arguments. Until Rome banned it in the seventh century, Celtic Christianity was the Christianity of the surviving Romano British population, successfully blending the old religious beliefs and the new.

 

Where do we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

Constantine and Augustine, BBC: Christianity in Britain, April 27, 2011.

Prehistoric Brits Ate People and Then Turned Their Bones Into Art, Jen Viegas, Seeker, September, 8, 2017

An Upper Paleolithic engraved human bone associated with ritualistic cannibalism, Silvia M. Bello, Rosalind Wallduck, Simon A. Parfitt, Chris B. Stringer, PLOS One, August 9, 2017

Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups, Silvia M. Bello, Simon A. Parfitt, Chris B. Stringer, PLOS One, February 16, 2011

The secrets of Paviland Cave, Stephen Moss, The Guardian, April 25, 2011

First Britons, Lisa Hendry, Natural history museum,15 November 2016

Prehistoric Britons mummified their dead like the ancient Egyptians, research reveals, The Independent, October 1, 2015

Mummification in Bronze Age Britain. T.J. Booth, A.T. Chamberlain and M. Parker Pearson. Antiquity. Vol. 89, October 2015.

The Practice of Human Sacrifice, Dr Michael Parker Pearson, BBC History, February 28, 2011

Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places: The Life and Legends of Ancient Sites around the World, Robert Ingpen and Philip Wilkinson, Viking Studio Books, 2000

An Introduction to Prehistoric England (Before AD 43), English Heritage.

Ancient Britain, James Dyer, Guild Publishing, 1990.

Long Barrows and Broken Bones, Tim Darvil, English Heritage

Ritual Mysteries in a Prehistoric Flint mine, English Heritage

Food and Feasting at Stonehenge, English Heritage

Skara Brae, BBC Mysterious Ancestors History trails

House Severn (Skara Brae), Orkneyjar: The heritage of the Orkney Islands

Macabre burial practices of Iron Age Britons revealed, Liam Proud, Natural History Museum, March 4, 2016

Cult of the Head? Craig Melia, Celtic Heritage: Culture, beliefs and Traditions of the Celtic peoples. 2005

Iron Age skull found in Somerset could be linked to ancient head cult, Sarah Knapton, The Telegraph, January 22, 2018

Animals and Birds in Celtic Tradition, Craig Melia, Celtic Heritage: Culture, beliefs and Traditions of the Celtic peoples. 2005

Druid, Encyclopedia Britannica, June 15, 2011

The Mabinogion, trans Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, Knopf, 2001

The Annals of Imperial Rome, Tacitus

Roman Britain, Martin Millet, English Heritage, 2003

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