Gaulish Alesia, the home of Ucuetis and Bergusia, was nearly lost to history entirely. After Julius Caesar’s military successes in Gaul, the Celtic tribes formed an alliance to push the Romans back, led by the Arverni chieftain Vercingetorix. At first the Gauls scored several victories against the Romans, but at Alesia the Roman army settled down to a seige which only ended when Vercingetorix surrendered.
After that Alesia became a Roman oppidum, and seems to have prospered, becoming famous for its metalworking. In the 5th century, after the Western Empire collapsed, the Gauls abandoned the town. Alesia’s location became a mystery, solved only in 1838 when an inscription, IN ALISIIA, was uncovered. Napoleon III ordered archaeologists to excavate around Mt. Auxois, confirming that Alise-sur-Reine, near Dijon, was Alesia.
The Irish Badb was one a number of terrifying goddesses of war. She could work battle magic to terrify the enemy, or just kill them with her terrifying shrieks. Badb could be one or many, and sometimes teamed up her sisters the Morrigan and Macha to wreak destruction.
The name badb comes from a Celtic root meaning “fury” or “violence”, from the Celto-Germanic *bodou, battle. The carrion crows that appeared at battlefields led to the other meaning, crow, and the idea of a crow goddess, so that Badb Catha meant “Battle Crow”. (Heijda: 12)
It seems strange, if you look at Irish or Welsh mythology, that there doesn’t seem to be any thunder-god like Thor. However, among the Celtic peoples of continental Europe, we find the god Taranis, whose name means “thunder” and who sometimes wields a thunderbolt.1
Humans have been working with metal for a long time: from the Copper Age (approx. 3500 – 1700 BCE) when the soft, malleable metal was the first to be smelted and used. So it’s not surprising that many cultures have smith-gods, and that in the Celtic world the smith-god and his name occur in Gaul, Wales, England and Ireland, making him one of the few pan-Celtic deities.1
And a very literal one – Goibniu, Gofannon and Cobannos all mean “Smith”.
I was seriously tempted to call this piece “Cernunnos: God of Bling”. This may seem a wildly inappropriate way to describe a god revered by neo-Pagans and possibly the divine ancestor of the Gauls, but when so many images of him feature one or more torcs, which are simply enormous gold necklaces, how can you resist?
Searching out Minervas always feels like seeing through a scrim; when you look at the Roman goddess, you see her through the Greek and Etruscan influences that went into her making. Looking at the Celtic goddesses who were compared to Minerva, named for her, or depicted in her image, you see through yet another veil, trying to discern the Celtic form under the Roman covering.
The Celtic peoples had many gods of war, if the number linked to Mars is anything to go by. They also had a lot of war-goddesses, whom we would expect to be associated with Minerva, Bellona or Victoria.
Surprisingly, goddesses paired with Victoria are pretty rare (I will look at Minerva in another post), although there are a few. There are also some native goddesses named “Victory”, all from modern France.
These three gods have a lot in common: they’re all brawny types whose worshippers were mainly working people, farmers, labourers, miners and even slaves. But what intrigued me about them was that their followers all wore their symbol – the hammer or club each god wielded.
When you consider what Hercules did for Gaul, it’s no wonder that they loved him. He founded the city of Alesia, and introduced the rule of law. “And for the entire period from the days of Heracles this city remained free and was never sacked until our own time…”1 (Diodorus Siculus 4.19.1)
Other myths said that Hercules was the father of Celtos, Galatos and Iberus, the ancestors of the Celts, Galatians and Iberians. This would make him the ancestor of the French, Spanish and Anatolian Celts, who would thus become many-times-grand-children of Jupiter.
To honour their fore-father, they offered statuettes of him at shrines (especially the god Borvo’s), and many Gaulish gods, including Ogmios and Smertrios, were paired with him as part of interpretatio celtica. (MacKillop: 248)