Toutatis: god of the tribe

The god Toutatis occupies a interesting place in the Gallic pantheon. His name, which means “of the tribe,” could equall well be a title, perhaps hiding another name. Against this, however, we have many artifacts, espeically rings, with his name on them, suggesting it was the commonly-used name for this god.

He is best-known from the Roman writer Lucan, who counts Taranis, Esus and Toutatis as notable for their desire for blood. (And presumably because they were major Gaulish gods.) Although it’s tempting to see them as a Gaulish answer to the Roman Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus, there’s no evidence to back this.

Tribal God

Unlike Taranis and Esus, we have no images of Toutatis, so we cannot tell how the ancient Gauls or Britons saw him. However, we do have other evidence: the name, the Roman writing and his commentators, and physcial evidence from Gaul and Britain.

His name, or title, is both specific and vague: while goddesses like Brigantia or Nemetona were protectors of specific tribes, Toutatis is “of the tribe”. Two tribes that left behind evidence of their veneration for him, the Gaulish Arveni and the British Corieltauvi, may well have considered him the god of their tribes.

Written evidence: Lucan and his commentators

Toutatis, whom the Roman writer Lucan calls Teutates, is usually associated with two other gods, Taranis and Esus. He mentioned them together in his Pharsalia, an account of Julius’ Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. According to him, their cults were extremely bloodthirsty:

And those who pacify with blood accursed
Savage Teutates, Hesus’ horrid shrines,
And Taranis’ altars, cruel as were those
Loved by Diana, goddess of the north;
All these now rest in peace.
(Lucan, De Bello Civilo [Pharsalis] I: 498-501)

(He meant the goddess known as Diana of the Scythians, who was honoured with human sacrifices, according to the historian Herodotus.) Two later commentaries on Lucan, from the 8th century, fill out our picture of these Gaulish gods. The Berne Scholia equated Mercury with Toutatis, Taranis with Dis Pater and Esus with Mars.):

Mercury, in Gaulish speech is called Teutates, he who is honoured among them with human blood. Teutates-Mercurius among the Gauls is appeased thus: in an full barrel, a man is plunged head-first, to suffocate him. Hesus-Mars is appeased thus: a man is hung from a tree until his members fall off from loss of blood. Taranis-Dis Pater is appeased there in the following fashion: in a wooden vat, a certain number of men are burned.

The commentator also says other authors called Toutatis Mars and Hesus Mercury. According to them Toutatis was appeased either by blood shed in war or human sacrifice, while Hesus was worshipped by merchants and Taranis, equated to Jupiter, used to received human heads, but they had been replaced by those of cattle.

Toutatis’ victims died by drowning; many connect this to a scene on the Gundestrup Cauldron showing a figure holding a smaller man head-down in a vat:

Interior plate E of the Gundestrup Cauldron. Wikimedia.

Although the cauldron comes from Denmark, the images are in Celtic style, and may reflect Celtic beliefs.

I should probably point out that the Roman accounts of human sacrifice among the Gauls may well be only propaganda, since it was in their interests to depict the Celts as barbarians badly in need of Roman civilization. (For a robust debunking of Lucan and the “threefold death” theory, see here.) And you could also argue that the monkish commentators on the Pharsalia were unlikely to know very much about pagan Gaulish religion of seven centuries ago.

Leaving aside the question of human sacrifice, it appears that Toutatis was considered equivalent to either Mercury or Mars, both important Roman deities. Both were equated with many different gods, but Mars was known by more Celtic names than any other deity.

Certainly both Mercury and Mars would be fitting for a god “of the tribe” (touta). The Gallo-Roman Mars. like Thor, was a protector above all else. He protected the fields, the soldiers in battle, the sick, and the tribe as a whole. As Deo Mecurio points out, Mars was the perfect god to equate to Toutatis, or the various toutates if each tribe had its own.

The Roman Mars was also part of the Archaic Triad along with Jupiter and the mysterious god Quirinus, which echoes the Gaulish trio Lucan proposed. (In fact, they are very close: a thunder-god, a warlike protector of the people, and a god about whom we know very little.)

Asterix’s favourite oath is “By Toutatis!”

Physical Evidence: altars and finger-rings

When we come to physical evidence, there are no dedications to  Toutatis as Mercury, but several to Mars Toutatis. A silver plate from Barkway in England bore the following inscription, to Mars Toutatis:

To Mars Toutatis, Tiberius Claudius Primus, freedman of Attius, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow. (R.I.B. 219)

Another altar, from Carlisle, also mentions Toutatis. Although one reading of the inscription was “Mars Teutates Cocidus” (the latter a god of northern England) the Roman Inscriptions of Britain website now separates the gods into three:

To Jupiter, Best and Greatest, and to Riocalatis, Toutatis, and Mars Cocidius in fulfilment of a vow Vitalis made (this altar) (R.I.B. 1071)

A bronze blade from Hertfordshire was dedicated to Toutatis in fulfillment of a vow:

Marti/Toutati/Ti-Claudius Primus/Attii Hber(tus)/v.s.l.m.

another from Chesterton reads, in part, Mar(ti?) To(. . .).

Against that, there is an inscription to Apollo Toutiorix in Weisbaden, Germany, suggesting once again that the name Toutatis/Teutates could be a title as well as a god’s name. It may also be that Toutatis, an already well-established god, was compared by the locals to whichever Roman god struck them as most like their vision of their tribal god. (This is often called interpretatio gallica or celtica, is a reverse of the interpretatio romano, where Romans “read” local deities as forms of their own deities.)

Whether the Britons saw him as Mars or not, he was a popular god there: the archaeologist Adam Daubney has a database listing 68 rings inscribed TOT. The most recent find turned up at the site where the previously unknown goddess Senuna was unearthed, reading DEA TOTA /FELIX. (The FELIX is on the ring’s shoulder, part of a common inscription: VTERE FELIX, wear this ring happily.)

Daubney’s paper on the cult of Totatis (his spelling) suggests that the Britons of the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE were using Toutatis as a way of bolstering tribal identity. The finds are mainly within the territory of the Corieltauvi, on the eastern side of England. He says that while no national survey has been done, it seems that there are far more Toutatis rings than those of any other deity, including the most popular Roman ones.

Silver ring inscribed “TOT”, possibly from Lincolnshire. WIkimedia.

In addition to rings, a pottery jar at Kelvedon was inscribed “Toutatis” and a stylus found at Jort near Calvados in France was similarly inscribed: Toutati (to Toutatis) and the owner’s name, SE(xtus) COS(ius) VEBR(us).

In north-eastern France, at Beauclair, archaeologists discovered five graffiti at the old Roman sanctuary, all saying TOTATES, or variants on that name. This area was the home of the Gaulish Arveni, who must have acknowledged Toutatis as one of their gods.

Teutates or Toutatis?

Which leaves us with one last question: Teutates, Toutatis, or Totatis? Paul Marie Duval, who wrote a major paper on our three deities, leaves it open. In the texts, following Lucan’s spelling, we have Teutates, while the altar inscriptions give us Toutatis.

And, as Daubney notes, the form used on the rings (TOT) suggests Totatis. Of course, Lucan’s information came from Gaul, filtered through Roman informants, while the other two forms come from native Britons and one Gaul (the stylus). So Toutatis or Totatis would seem the more likely form.

PS – There does not seem to be an Irish or Welsh form of Toutatis, but the legendary Irish high king Túathal Techtmar may be connected to him.


References and Links:

Clémençon, Bernard and Pierre M. Ganne 2009: “Toutatis chez les Arvernes: Les graffiti à Totates du bourg routier antique de Beauclair (communes de Giat et de Voingt, Puy-de-Dôme),” Gallia 66/2: 153-69. (JSTOR)
Daubney, Adam 2010: “The Cult of Totatis: evidence of tribal identity in mid Roman Britain” in A Decade of Discovery: Proceedings of the Portable Antiquities Scheme Conference 2007 (British Archaeological Reports, British Series 510): 105-16. (academia.edu)
Duval, Paul Marie 1989: “Teutates, Esus, Taranis,” in Travaux sur la Gaule (1946-1986): École Française de Rome: 275-287. (Persée)
Green, Miranda 1997: Dictonary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Thames and Hudson.
LaJoye, Patrice, and Claude Lemâitre 2014: “Une inscription votive à Toutatis découverte à Jort (Calvados, France),” Études celtiques XL: 21-8. (academia.edu)
MacKillop, James 2004: An Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.

The Berne Scholia text (in Latin)
Finds Database on Hockcliffe ring
Sensational article about the ring find and possible human sacrifice
Blog post rubbishing sensationalism about the ring and Toutatis generally.

The image at the top can be found here.

5 thoughts on “Toutatis: god of the tribe

  1. Pingback: Esus: the third god | We Are Star Stuff

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