The Roman god Silvanus may not be the best-known, but he was popular with the people. He had no official cult or priests dedicated to his worship – his was a cult of country people, farmers, labourers and slaves.
There are two known gods of smithing in Gaul: Gobannos and Ucuetis. Now, it’s very possible that the two are the same god with different epithets… Gobannos literally means “smith” (though it can be derived further into other proto-Celtic roots), and Ucuetis may mean “great breath”—a reference to bellows—and was worshiped by the smiths of Alesia. Gobannos is also known as Cobannos, of the rich Cobannos Hoard now displayed at the Getty Villa in California, thanks to the rule where C and G became at one time interchangeable in Gaulish. Now please stay with me as I propose a third potential god of smithing: Sucellos. This is not a theory that I’ve seen widely upheld, but I think it likely for reasons put forth below.
Go to the Nemeton Deuognaton site to read more.
(For the image at the top, click here.)
Sucellos was a god of Eastern Gaul and the Rhineland. Images of him from the Roman period show a mature man dressed in a tunic, with a pot (olla) in one hand and a large hammer in the other. He sometimes has a barrel at his feet, and occasionally a dog accompanies him. The goddess Nantosuelta occasionally appears beside him. His name means “The Good Striker”.
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.
We’re always taught that Odin was head of the Norse gods, and father of most of them. But when the Christians in Scandinavia began to press the pagans to give up their religion, the sign of resistance was Thor’s hammer, not Odin’s spear or valknut.
This may come as a surprise to us, who mostly think of Thor as big and strong and a bit dim, out of his depth when it comes to anything more complicated than smashing giants. But Thor was a very popular deity in the Viking Age, as place-names and personal names show, perhaps because of his closeness to the humans he defended.
The Dagda is the head of the Irish pantheon, whose name means the “Good God”. He is head of the Tuatha de Danann, and was king of Ireland between Nuada and Lugh, but he can also take on the appearance and manners of a peasant farmer. He has been compared to his fellow Celts Sucellos and Cernunnos, but he also resembles the Norse god Odin, being changeable and tricky as well as a great magician.
In the Irish myths a mysterious phrase crops up: the gods and the non-gods (or un-gods). We all know what a god is, but what is an non-god?
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”.
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)