Ogmios is a vaguer deity than the Irish god Ogma. Most of what we know about him comes from the Roman writer Lucan, who called him Hercules and described him as a master of persuasion and rhetoric. One inscription seems to record a dedication to him in fulfillment of a vow, and two curse tablets invoke him.
Ogmios is only known from one dedication, from modern-day Reims. It’s not ideal as evidence for his existence, as his name is somewhat unclear:
Ogl(—) Aug(usto?) sac(rum) / Ateuritus / seplas(iarius) v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito)
(CIL 13.4, 11295)
Without the evidence of Lucan’s description of a Gaulish Hercules named Ogmios, and the similarly named Irish god Ogma, the OGL at the beginning of this inscription would have remained a mystery.
The two curse tablets come from the Austrian town of Bregenz. One, an inscribed lead tablet rolled up and deposited in a grave, was found during construction. At first it seemed to be mere nonsense, but it was later deciphered from its cryptic and very abbreviated Latin, although as the parts in brackets (restored letters) show, it’s still far from crystal clear.
The scholar who first deciphered the tablet saw that it was similar to another curse tablet uncovered at Bregenz, and that it followed the pattern of these tabulae defixiones. These were supposed to bind an enemy, either literally or symbolically. (The word defixio means “curse, spell” and comes from the Latin de + figigo, to stick or thrust a weapon, or to attach, fix, or to curse.)
The tablets were addressed to the chthonic gods: Pluto, Demeter, Hecate, etc. and were buried in graves, laid in the earth or sunk in deep water, presumably to bring them to the deities who were being asked to carry out the curse. The first Bregenz tablet invokes local versions of the chthonic deities, Dis Pater* and Aerecura:
I bi(n)d Amc. Thi(s) thin(g) D(is) P(at)
er with Eracura wi(l)l f(i)x. Ogm-
ios, (‘er) ‘eal(th), ‘heart, ankle, ki(dn)-
eys, genita(l)s … ear,
lunch box, necess(ities) –
give (’em) over to the spirits
– and obedient to ‘im, may she
not get married. Wrath (o’ the) god(s). (Mees: Loc. 2456)
Bernard Mees, in his book Celtic Curses, compares it to another, Greek spell to show how closely it keeps to the general format of a curse:
I bind Theodora in the presence of she who is at Persephone’s side [i.e. her daughter, Hecate] and in the presence of the unfulfilled [i.e. those who have not received proper funeral rites]. May she be unmarried…I bind Theodora to remain unmarried to Charias and Charias to forget Theodora, and Charias to forget…Theodora and the marriage bed of Theodora.
(Mees: Loc. 2464-72)
While the first tablet is concerned with a love affair, the second deals with a legal battle between a woman named Brutta and four men:
Domitius Niger and Lollius and Julius Severus and Severus, sl(a)ve of Niger, the oppo(n)en(ts) of Brutta, and whatever hostile t(h)at one is say(ing), may you all be lost.
(I as)k you all, you (w)ho are (pre)paring misfortune for that one, to be given to (O)gmios, to be co(n)sumed (by) death … of … and Nige(r) … Valerius … and Ni(g)er.
(Mees: 2489) (CIL III:11882)
(Once again, Mees has had to fill in missing letters. Curse tablets, which were usually made of lead, and often rolled up or pierced with a nail, were often in pretty rough shape by the time archaeologists got to them.) The two curses have the god Ogmios in common, but they also have their differences. The second one doesn’t mention any other deities, and the first seems to say that Ogmios will give Amc. (Amica?) to the spirits who will cause her misfortune, while the other simply mentions “you all” who will be working against the men.
Mees thinks that these tablets point to a psychopomp role for Ogmios, who stands between the woe-working spirits or infernal deities and the human world of love and litigation. The Roman god Mercury often appears in defixiones because he was also a psychopomp who brought souls to the underworld.
Ogmios was not the only deity who was invoked in curses. A Gaulish curse tablet mentions the god Maponos, and another the Gaulish goddess Adsagsona (and possibly Bricta), while the British goddess Sulis had many of them deposited in the sacred waters at her shrine. (Deposits of curse tablets at temples was common in Britian: they’ve been found in the temples of Nodons, Jupiter and many others.)
I mentioned above that many curse tablets were buried with a corpse; the Romans seem to have taken the idea of underworld deities literally:
When Dis Pater was in the underworld, only oaths and curses could reach him, and people invoked him by striking the earth with their hands. Black sheep were sacrificed to him, and those who performed the sacrifice averted their faces. Dis Pater, like his Greek equivalent, Hades, had little or no real cult following, and so there are few statues of him. In literature, Dis Pater was commonly used as a symbolic and poetic way of referring to death itself.
(Nova Roma: entry on Dis)
It’s not clear if the Gauls and Britons adopted the Roman practice of sending prayers to the underworld deities by interring them or dropping them in water, or if it was part of their religious practice already, like dropping offerings in bogs and lakes.
Lucian’s Celtic Hercules
Lucian was a Syrian, born at Samosta in 120 AD. He was well-known as an essayist (and satirist) but his essay on Hercules, which discusses the “Celtic Hercules”, seems to be in earnest. I’m quoting it here at some length, because I want readers to see the points that Lucian was making:
1. Our Heracles is known among the Gauls under the local name of Ogmius; and the appearance he presents in their pictures is truly grotesque. They make him out as old as old can be: the few hairs he has left (he is quite bald in front) are dead white, and his skin is wrinkled and tanned as black as any old salt’s. You would take him for some infernal deity, for Charon or Iapetus,— any one rather than Heracles. Such as he is, however, he has all the proper attributes of that God: the lion’s-skin hangs over his shoulders, his right hand grasps the club, his left the strung bow, and a quiver is slung at his side; nothing is wanting to the Heraclean equipment.
3. However, I have yet to mention the most remarkable feature in the portrait. This ancient Heracles drags after him a vast crowd of men, all of whom are fastened by the ears with thin chains composed of gold and amber, and looking more like beautiful necklaces than anything else. From this flimsy bondage they make no attempt to escape, though escape must be easy. There is not the slightest show of resistance: instead of planting their heels in the ground and dragging back, they follow with joyful alacrity, singing their captor’s praises the while; and from the eagerness with which they hurry after him to prevent the chains from tightening, one would say that release is the last thing they desire. Nor will I conceal from you what struck me as the most curious circumstance of all. Heracles’s right hand is occupied with the club, and his left with the bow: how is he to hold the ends of the chains? The painter solves the difficulty by boring a hole in the tip of the God’s tongue, and making that the means of attachment; his head is turned round, and he regards his followers with a smiling countenance.
(Lucian: Heracles, An Introductory Lecture)
Clearly Lucian wants us to see that the Celts value eloquence and rhetoric over brute force. (And perhaps he wishes his hearers to think of the high status of the druids and bards in Gaul, as compared to writers and rhetoricians in Rome.) Or perhaps this was the point that his interpreter was making.
At any rate, Lucian’s interpreter clearly states that Ogmios = Hercules. Most modern writers link this to the Irish Ogma‘s status as champion of the Tuatha, but also inventor of the ogham alphabet. But while Ogma performs feats of strength, and the composers of the epics seem to have imagined him as a physically mighty man, Ogmios is a wrinkled old man whose only strength is in his tongue.
Some writers compare Lucian’s description with a type of Celtic coin that shows a large central head surrounded by a number of smaller ones, although of course this image could be explained in other ways. (The Celtic habit of head-hunting, for example.) You can see another example here. The magical, chained swans of Irish medieval literature, flying together with golden chains between them, might be another comparison, while Emile Benoit sees them as part of the cult of the severed head (although this is a controversial concept).
Theories: Hercules, Dis Pater, Hermes
All this has led to some interesting theories as to what sort of god Ogmios actually was. Infernal, psychopomp, strong man or eloquent? Or all of the above, which would seem to suit our image of the Celts?
Ogma seems closer to Hercules than Ogmios; Lucian’s comparison of the two seems to highlight how different they are. The curse tablets may well point to an infernal deity, the Dis Pater that the Gauls claimed to be descended from (according to Julius Caesar). Or, Ogmios may simply travel to the world of the dead and back, relaying messages and bringing souls.
It seems ungrateful, in light of how much information we do have about Ogmios, to want more, but while I incline to seeing him as a Mercury-like god, I have to admit that there’s a lot we don’t know. If all we knew about the Christian god came from an account by a foreigner of another religion trying to interpret an image of say, Christ as the Lamb of God, and the rest came from some Christian black magic, we’d have a very odd image of Him indeed.
Ogmios may well be as much Hercules as Mercury, with traces of Dis Pater or Sucellos. But I’d like to leave you with another interpretation of the golden chains that bind Ogmios and his followers: in Irish medieval literature, there is a recurrent image of swans joined by a golden chain, flying together. These swans are not bound, but working together in harmony, often in love. Whether Ogmios was drawing his followers to the otherworld or just on his travels, they went joyfully, and of their own volition.
*Mees suggests that Dis Pater here may be a Roman interpretation of the god Smertrios, as they appear together on an altar, also from Bregenz.
References and Links
Benoit, Fernand 1953: “L’Ogmios de Lucien, la “Tete Coupee”, et le Cycle Mythologique Irlandaise et Gaullois,” Ogam V:3: 33-42. (link here)
Mees, Bernard 2009: Celtic Curses, Boydell Press.
Kernunnos.com on Ogmios
Mary Jones on Ogmios, Ogma and a possible Welsh link
Nova Roman entry on Dis
Celtic Culture Encyclopedia on Ogmios and Ogma
The picture at the top of this article can be found here.
Fantastic post – thanks
Ogmios is a god who I knew nothing about until reading this. I love Lucian’s vivid descriptions of him as the Celtic Hercules and your connection between him and the swans with the golden chains (golden as they are chains of language and eloquence?).
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I didn’t know a lot about him either – I just assumed he was another Ogma. Lucian’s description makes him vivid – I wish we had a few more for other Celtic deities.
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