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)
Sometimes studying mythology leads you into areas of human frailty and vulnerability that bring you very close to the past. Any study of healing deities stirs the emotions, partly because we all know the fear that sickness brings, and because so many of the things they suffered from are unknown to us (at least in the prosperous world).*
The many offerings of ex-votos, often body parts, found at healing shrines testify to the various illnesses of ancient times. These were not always rich offerings, either. At the shrine of Apollo Vindonnus archaeologists found many votives carved from oak wood or stone. Many were of body parts, but others were of hands holding offerings. (You wonder if they somehow stood for the offering itself, or promised one in return for a cure.)
Celtic goddesses went in for divine polyandry (multiple husbands) in a big way. For every Rosmerta or Nantosuelta who kept to one god, there were several like Damona and Ancamna who doubled or tripled up with Gaulish, Roman, or “blended” gods like Apollo Grannus or Mars Smertios. (While it is true that the Roman gods Mercury, Mars and Apollo take on different names and partners, they are the ones who take on Celtic by-names, while the goddesses keep their own.)
Although the name Damona means something like “Divine/ Great Cow”, the only image we have of her is in human form, and it has only survived in fragments: a stone head, crowned with corn-ears, and a hand with a serpent’s coils around it. It turned up in a votive pit at Alise-Sainte-Reine, ancient Alesia, the centre of her cult. It was originally painted, Roman-style, with the body painted white, the hair red, with a green diadem and yellow grain.