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

Christianity took its time establishing itself in Britain. The Romans might have conquered the island just over a decade after Christ’s death, but until the sixth century AD, the new religion maintained only a tentative hold over certain sectors of British society. Then, in 597 AD, Pope Gregory the Great sent St Augustine on a mission to convert the pagan Saxons at the court of Aethelberht of Kent. Augustine triumphed- and Aethelberht set about Christianising Saxon Britain. Britain, however, had several millennia worth of accumulated pre Christian religious beliefs and practices behind it. Barbaric, surprising or curiously familiar, many of these beliefs survive today, as folk memories, archaeological relics – or within Christianity itself.

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
Remains of a Paleolithic male known as the “Red Lady of Paviland” found in southern Wales. Picture Credit: Ethan Doyle White. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. English Wikipedia.

16. British hunter-gatherers began to ritually bury their dead 33,000 years ago-as the Welsh Red Lady of Paviland prooves.

Thirty-three thousand years ago, Britain was enjoying an interglacial lull. The warmer temperatures attracted groups of hunter-gathers, who crossed the land bridge from Europe and began to roam the British peninsula hunting for game. One day, a group was hunting mammoth around the Gower peninsula in Wales, when one of their group fell. The hunter was young; six foot tall and in the peak of health and so a devastating loss to the group. His companions must have felt the young hunter’s loss keenly because they did not just dispose of the remains but buried them with some ceremony.

The hunting party took their fallen companion’s remains to what is now known as Paviland Cave where they laid him to rest in a shallow grave. As part of the pre-burial preparations, they defleshed the body and rubbed its bones with red ochre, a pigment still associated in many cultures today with blood and rebirth. They then interred the remains with a collection of periwinkle shells and ivory rods.

The man who found him, the Reverend William Buckland, assumed the shells and rods were the remains of jewellery and so mistook the hunter for a Roman prostitute! This misidentification and the red-stained bones earned the remains the name ‘The Red Lady of Paviland.” Misidentified or not, the Paviland grave is the earliest example of a ceremonial burial in Western Europe.

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
“A Palaeolithic human skull from Gough’s Cave identified as having potential cannibalistic connotations.” Picture Credit: Ethan Doyle White. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Wikimedia Commons.

15. Elsewhere, in late Paleolithic Britain, cannibalism may have become a favorite death ritual.

Just under twenty thousand years later, humans again returned briefly to Britain in another glacial lull. Groups of hunters once again crossed the land bridge, and 14,700 years ago, a group of Horse Hunters settled the caves of Cheddar Gorge. For a few seasons, the caves formed the base for the hunter’s activities. In Gough’s cave, previously famous for the remains of Cheddar man, Britain’s oldest intact skeleton, archaeologists discovered a refuse pit containing the gnawed bones of the Horse hunter’s prey. Horses, deer, grouse, and hares all featured as part of their diet. However, amongst the remains of these ancient dinners was a grizzly surprise.

The refuse pit also contained the disarticulated remains of five humans- including a three-year-old child. Archaeologists examined the bones and found that someone had carefully stripped the flesh from them. In 42% of these cases, those completing the grizzly task used their teeth instead of flint blades. A third of the bones had been deliberately broken, seemingly to extract the marrow. Finally, someone scooped the soft tissues from the skulls and smoothed the edges of the empty craniums to form them into cups. Based on the evidence, it seems that before diminishing herds of their prey had driven them from the area, the horse hunters had turned to cannibalism.

However, the horse hunters also marked the bones with a zig-zag pattern that did not correspond with any of the filleting marks. Dr Silva Bello, a scientist at the National History Museum, London used 3D analysis to examine the cut marks and determine that they were deliberate. The marks form the oldest examples of engraved human bone. They also suggest something else was going on besides dining on the dead. For the horse, herds may well have been diminishing in the location of Cheddar Gorge. However, there was plenty of other game available.

Dr Bello believes that the bones are an example of Endocannibalism, a mortuary ritual where mourners consume the flesh of the deceased as an act of remembrance. The Gough’s Cave bones show no signs of violent death and the careful shaping of the skulls and carving of their bones after defleshing suggests that mourners were carving them as an act of remembrance. The defleshing may have even occurred because the deceased died some distance from the cave and disarticulation made them more portable. Either way, the dead had not merely become dinner.

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
West Kennet Long Barrow, near Avebury. Picture Credit: Troxx, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Wikimedia Commons.

14. As prehistoric time progressed, ancestor worship became a major religious obsession for the ancient British, and they began to build houses for the dead.

Between 4400-3300 BC, the Neolithic revolution reached Europe and the practice of agriculture finally established itself in Britain. British hunter-gatherers began to settle down as crops and livestock tied them to their land. However, at the same time, a series of stone or turf mounds began to appear all over the British landscape, stretching from the highlands and islands of Scotland right down to the South coast of what would eventually be known as England. These mounds, known collectively as chamber tombs had a very particular function: they were houses for the dead.

The community of the dead within chamber tombs was pretty exclusive. Although archaeologists have discovered the bones of men, women and children, the numbers suggest the burial chambers only housed specially chosen individuals. Exactly how or why their community selected these particular individuals is a mystery. However, axe blows found on some of the skulls suggest that not everyone died of natural causes. However they died, the remains of those selected underwent special preparations before internment. Their bodies were exposed in an outdoor mortuary enclosure until they were utterly de-fleshed. Then, their skeletons were disarticulated, and the bones added to others of their type within the tomb.

Archaeologists believe these barrows represent a community of ancestors whose role was to guard and protect their tribe and land. The tombs may have acted as boundary markers for the tribe’s territory, suggesting that Neolithic Britains believed their dead would police the borders of their land and keep harm and invaders out. However, many of the tombs also had forecourts where the community could assemble as particular times of the year, suggesting the ancestors were also called upon to help ensure a bountiful harvest- or stave off foul weather that could blight the crops.

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
House 7 at Skara Brae. Picture Credit: Wknight94. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Wikimedia Commons.

13. Ancestors were so crucial to the people of Skara Brae, that the villagers gave them a house of their own.

The small Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae, located just off mainland Scotland on the Orkney Islands is famous for its perfect preservation and the sudden disappearance of its residents. The village is also notable because its residents constructed it within the midden heap of a former settlement. This midden heap snugly sheltered the living who resided in six small houses. Skara Brae’s seventh and oldest house, however, had a very different purpose.

On the face of it, House 7 is no different to the other houses of Skara Brae. It possessed the same, surprisingly modern looking stone dressers and beds and like the other houses, had a bolt which could be drawn to secure the inside. However, unlike in Skara Brae’s other homes, number 7’s bar was on the outside. The peculiarity of House 7 did not end there. For it was built slightly apart from the other houses, on virgin-ground outside the midden mound. Its separateness was also subtly emphasised by the fact that it was connected to the rest of the village by a single side passage.

Some archaeologists believe the outside bolt and peripheral location made House 7 a kind of Neolithic jail. However, a macabre find under the floor suggests a more sacred function, for excavators discovered the remains of two women carefully buried in stone-lined graves under the House 7’s right-hand bed and wall. The burials predated the construction of the dwelling, suggesting Skara Brae’s occupants built House 7 deliberately over the graves. House 7’s prearranged location over the remains of previous settlers could have been part of a foundation ritual with the first house of the new village dedicated as a ‘home’ for the ancestors. Alternatively, it may have been a place of initiation. Either way, it was clear the resident’s of Skara Brae felt they had to keep these particular ancestors close.

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

12. Evidence from near Stonehenge suggests Neolithic Britains celebrated ‘Christmas.’

The late Neolithic saw chamber tombs replaced by stone circles or henges as people shifted their attention from the ancestor’s to the world around them. Henge monuments began as simple causeways terminating in circular earthworks or a wooden Henge. However, by 3000 BC, they had become more sophisticated. Now constructed from stone, henges were often aligned with specific constellations and the rising and setting sun at midsummer and midwinter respectively. As such, they were places that people could gather to mark the turning of the year and the progression of the seasons.

Stonehenge is particularly significant in this respect. Its heel stone-the single large sarsen stone just outside the main monument- was positioned to align with sunrise on the longest day of the year and sunset on the shortest day. Evidence from Durrington Walls, the Neolithic centre two miles from Stonehenge, indicates that the winter solstice was a significant time of the year. For vast quantities of the discarded bones of pigs and cattle discovered at the site, suggest the people at Durrington Walls celebrated midwinter in some style.

The bones show the people of Durrington Walls roasted the animals over huge fires before serving them to the assembled people. Many of the bones still had shreds of meat on them- a clear indication that there was so much meat available, people did not have to worry about stripping their portion bare. To consume meat in such quantities indicates Durrington Wall was hosting a festival, probably linked to one of the major celestial events at Stonehenge. So how do we know it was at the winter solstice?

The answer lies in the pig bones. For experts have analysed the bones and found they belong to animals of around nine months old. Since most piglets were born in the spring, this places the time of slaughter and so consumption at midwinter. However, this midwinter feast was not just a local affair. For analysis of the teeth and bones of the animals’ shows, they came from west Wales, northern England- and even northeast Scotland. For Stonehenge to draw people from such distances suggests that the monument and its midwinter festival were of great significance across the whole of Britain. This significance perhaps explains how the organisers of the building work at Stonehenge were able to obtain the workforce and resources they needed.

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
Flint Mines at Grimes Graves. Picture Credit: Adrian Farwell. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported. Wikimedia Commons

11. Rituals could occur at any time and in any place in Neolithic Britain- even flint mines.

Stone tools were an integral part of Neolithic life, and flint, in particular, was essential. So, by 2600 BC, Grimes Graves in Norfolk had become a particularly essential flint works, extracting flint and fashioning it into functional, everyday items. The stone for these knives, axes and arrowheads lay close to the surface. However, for sacred, ceremonial objects, the miners had to dig deeper, for subterranean flint was harder to come by and so deemed sacred.

Such was the demand for its underground flint that by the end of its lifespan over 400 mines pitted Grimes Graves, some with shafts up to 13 meters deep. Archaeologists have discovered unused ceremonial axes, made from Grimes Graves flint in sacred hoards, miles from their source suggesting the area and its rock were deemed particularly sacred. The miners seemed to think so for chalk altars complete with ‘offerings’ have been found in the galleries of the mines.

Those exploring the mines have found practical items such as antler picks and pottery vessels alongside small balls and phallus. These offerings, probably made to the subterranean gods where probably made by miners grateful for their continued safety or the abundant veins of flint. Eventually, however, the rock ran out, and the mineshafts were filled in and abandoned. However, the miners do not seem to have seen their earlier offerings as futile. For the abandonment of Grimes Graves was not without ceremony.

Fires, believed by archaeologist to be part of a purification ritual, were lit at the base of each shaft, as well as yet more offerings. These were particularly special. At the bottom of one pit-shaft, someone carefully laid a rare Cornish greenstone axe and an even rarer bird’s skull between two parallel antler bone picks. Excavators have also discovered human, and animal remains in other shafts. Whether they were animate or inanimate, these offerings suggest that the miners believed they needed to make extraordinary sacrifices- possibly in the hope that the gods would renew the flint supplies.

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
Cladh Hallan, the site of Britain’s Bronze Age mummies. Picture Credit: Toxic Lab. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Wikimedia Commons.

10. Ancestor worship enjoyed a renaissance in Bronze Age Britain when people began to mummify their dead -at the same time as the Ancient Egyptians.

By the Bronze Age, ancestor worship seemed to be back in vogue in Britain. However, instead of stripping the flesh off their significant deceased, Bronze Age Britains took up a practice more usually associated with ancient Egypt: mummification. It seems that Britons and the Egyptians began practising mummification at the same time- albeit using different methods. For although the Egyptians preserved their mummies using salt, spices and bandages, the British were mummifying their dead by immersing them in a peat bog, or, in some cases by smoking and drying out the corpses.

People have long recognised the preservative properties of heat and smoke in food preservation. What is less well known is that ancient Britains also used bogs as larders. Archaeologists have found the kegs of butter perfectly preserved in many British bogs. Indicating the Ancient British were using peat-bogs to extend the shelf life of a valuable commodity. So it was logical they apply the same method to preserve their equally valued dead.

Dr Tom Booth of Sheffield University has examined several burial sites across the extent of England and as far north as Cladh Hallan in the eastern isles of Scotland. Although only skeletons remained, analysis of the bones in 16 cases identified them as mummified. Bones left to decay naturally are quickly attacked by bacteria and so begin to deteriorate rapidly. However, the process of mummification significantly slows down this process. The 16 cases showed the same slow rate of decay as their Egyptian counterparts. These remains prove that even though soil conditions after burial caused their flesh to decay, someone initially mummified the bodies.

Fourteen of the bodies showed signs of being preserved in a peat bog while heat and smoke mummified two others. Booth believes the mummified corpses were ‘stored ‘ above ground before burial- in the case of the Scottish mummies for several hundred years. The mummies could have been used by their descendants to stake a claim to ancestral lands. However, mummification and delayed burial could also have been part of the prolonged burial rites of high-status individuals. Either way, this particular burial ritual seems to have died out by the end of the Bronze Age. Mummification of human remains, however, continued into the Iron Age in a much different sacred context.

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
Lindow Man. Picture credit: Einsamer Schütze, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons

9. Mummified Bog Bodies represent human sacrifices to ensure the protection of the land.

Around 2000 mummified Bog bodies have been found from prehistoric Northern Europe, some as much as 6000 years old. Interestingly, unlike the Bronze Age mummies, most if not all of these bodies bear the signs of deliberate, violent death. Some died from blows to the head, while others were strangled or had their throats cut. After death, all were deposited in a peat bog- and left there. Lindow man, one of the best examples from Britain, was discovered in the Lindow Moss, a peat bog in Cheshire in 1984. Well groomed, well built and healthy, Lindow man met his end sometime between 2 BC and 199 AD- and it wasn’t a pretty one.

After being forced to his knees, his assailant hit Lindow Man on the head hard enough to render him unconscious. His attackers then garroted him and cut his throat for good measure. This elaborate death corresponds with what Anne Ross; an expert on Iron Age religion calls the Triple Death- a sacrificial ritual of the Celts. Although no accounts of human sacrifice in Britain exist, Roman writers do record instances from Europe. Julius Caesar accusing the Gauls of burning their human sacrifices alive in wicker effigies, while Strabo’s describes how the Celts ‘used to strike a human being, devoted to death, in the back with a sword, and then divine from his death struggle.

So was Lindow man a human sacrifice? Some experts say not, dismissing his death as an elaborate murder and the garrote about his neck as the remains of a necklace. However, Lindow Man’s injuries match a pattern exhibited by too many other bog bodies for his death to be a random event-especially as there are other bodies on Lindow Moss who died in similar ways in the same period.

One suggestion for the death of Lindow man and his companions was that they were particular individuals chosen to halt Roman encroachment upon the northern tribal lands. It could be that the manner of their death and preservation of their bodies in situ in the peat bog was a way of ensuring their spirits stayed put as guardians of the land.

The Weird and Wonderful Religious Practices and Beliefs of Pre-Christian Britain
Danebury Hillfort. Picture credit: Hampshire Hub and the University of Southhampton, Hampshire Data Portal,, released under OGL licence; Wikimedia Commons

8. On the whole, however, it seems the Iron Age dead were not left to rest in peace- because bones meant power.

While Iron Age sacrificial victims may have been deliberately preserved in peat bogs and left in peace, it seems it was quite usual to disturb the rest of the Iron Age dead. Archaeologists examining pre-Roman burials in Britain have found that it was common for people to interact with the dead- not by visiting the graveside and leaving flowers- but by digging up the deceased after they had lain in peace for a few years and making off with a body part or two.

Formal cemeteries don’t seem to have existed in the Iron Age, and archaeologists have only found the remains of what they estimate to be a small proportion of the Iron Age population. Initially, archaeologists thought this was because the bodies did not survive in the archaeological record. It was believed Iron Age people left the dead exposed to the elements to rot, a practice known as sky burial or else consigned them to a watery grave with their possessions- which is one way of explaining the many swords, jewellery and cups found in lakes and ponds and dating to this period.

Curiously, archaeologists found the human remains they did discover in iron age settlements, often quite close to houses- stored in grain storage pits. However, most of these bodies were incomplete skeletons. So a team of researchers from Cardiff University decided to subject twenty bones from Suddern Farm and Danebury hill forts to intense analysis. The archaeologists discovered that only one of the bones belonged to a sky buried individual. The rest had been buried in the old grain storage pits and left to decompose.

However, several years after burial, people- presumably relatives- uncovered the bodies and helped themselves to some of the bones. Dr Richard Madgewick believes these bones were probably ancestral relics that were meant to bestow the living with the qualities of the deceased- or aid them in times of need. If this is a valid interpretation, Iron Age people prized the disarticulated remains of their dead in very much in the same way as medieval Christians valued the bodily relics of their saints.

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