Everyone who studies Celtic beliefs knows that many aspects of pre-Roman and pre-Christian beliefs remain shrouded in mystery. Ann Ross in this comprehensive book is trying to convince us, the readers, that neither the Roman invasion of Britain nor the coming of Christianity eliminated pagan religious practice.
Dr. Anne Ross speaks Gaelic and Welsh and writes from wide experience of living in Celtic-speaking communities. She has studied and traced vernacular tradition, and she was formerly Research Fellow in Archaeology at the University of Southampton. She is still researching different aspects of Celtic culture. As can be seen from her credentials she is very capable of writing this book, however, this book was first written in 1967 and then re-published after review in 1996, so some information might be out of date.
In Pagan Celtic Britain, Anne Ross begins by telling us the scope of her study, her sources and the limitations of her study. The major limitation of the study is the fact that the Celts did not leave any written records for us to find. The sources that the author uses are archaeology, iconography, classical records and vernacular records. From the onset she tells us the limitations of each of these sources. Archaeology is limited by the way it is interpreted, one artifact cane mean one thing to one archaeologist and something totally different to another. Iconography is limited in Britain by not being as comprehensive as the ones on the continent. Two things limit classical records, the first is that enemies of the Celts write these records and the second limitation is that they did not REALLY discuss the religion and beliefs of the Celts in detail. Finally, the vernacular records of the Welsh and the Irish are written hundreds of years after the fact AND they were written in Christian times so they have an agenda of their own. The scope of the study is Pagan, pre-Roman, pre-Christian Britain. The author tells us that she will combine all these sources to help give us a picture of what that time was like when it comes to the beliefs of the Celts.
In the introduction the author also gives us a definition of Celt and Celtic by explaining that it could mean different things to different people. Then she gives us an outline of the history of the Celts on the continent, in Britain and in Ireland. She also briefly discusses what she means when she says vernacular records of the Irish and the Welsh.
The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the study of sanctuaries, temples and cult sites. The author talks about all the different places that seem to be dedicated to goddesses and gods, from wells, springs, rivers, to groves, trees and even grave sites. No discussion of these things is complete without a look at the people who officiated these sites and the rituals associated with them. The druids or Celtic priests were mentioned in the classic writings and in the vernacular records of the Celtic nations but little is really known about them. Most of what we have today come from the romantic writings of the 17th and 18th century. Most is based on Masonic like and ceremonial magic groups.
The Celts venerated the head as a symbol of divinity and the powers of the otherworld, and regarded it as the most important body part, and the place where the soul resides. The cult of the head is the subject of chapter two of the book. The author tells us about the cult in both continental Europe and in the insular Celtic lands. She talks about the different materials used to depict the head as well as the many different ways it was depicted.
Next in chapter three, the author talks about the Horned God in Britain. It is said to be second in importance to the head cult in both the Continental Celts and the insular Celts. Again the author tells us about the different depiction of the horned god and also other symbols of it like serpents and horned animals for example.
The tribal god of the Celts must at one time or another take up his weapons and adopt the role of the warrior and the warrior god is the subject of chapter four. Through looking at iconography and epigraphy the author gives us different examples of tribal warrior gods in Britain and in which areas they can be found.
The next chapter deals with the goddesses of Britain. It deals with them as a whole category, which inevitably will reflect to some extent the functions of the Celtic women in the society. She deals with goddesses that have consorts and others with out. The goddesses also reflect the economic situation of the people that worship them.
Chapter six deals with sacred and magic birds. The author talks about the swan, the raven, prognostic birds, malevolent otherworldly birds, magic otherworld birds, the goose, the owl, the eagle, the crane and other long legged marsh birds. She gives examples of gods associated with them, and she tells you where they are mentioned in the mythology and vernacular records. A very interesting chapter to read.
Continuing along the same lines, chapter seven is about divine animals. She begins by talking about gods that have animal parts, the cat, the divine bull, cows, boars, pigs, horses, stags, dogs, wolves, rams, snakes, dragons, bears, hares, and fish. Again she deals with iconography, and mythology. The aspects of all these animals and what they represent is very important.
The final chapter of the book discusses aspects of the cults native to north Britain. In this chapter the author discusses the cults in Northern Britain before and after the Romans came. She takes a specific look at certain deities like, Maponus, Belatucadros, Cocidius, and Vitiris. It is a very interesting look for people interested in cults from that part of the country.
I suppose it was inevitable for the author to discuss the Roman counter-parts for the deities in Britain. It did grate on my nerves a little though. I do understand why she was doing it, I mean for people not familiar with the “Celtic Pantheon” it is probably easier to associate them with similar functioning gods in the Roman pantheon, not to mention the importing of Roman deities in to Britain after the Roman invasion.
The book is a great reference when it comes to what evidence we have of the Celtic religion, and a good starting point for more research. The kind of book that you can refer to from time to time to find evidence of sacred animals and what kind of cults can be found in Britain. A good reference book to have.