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
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

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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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