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Life on the Fringe - 6: Mortality, Immortality - Celt and Roman Beliefs on the Afterlife, Gerald of Wales and More

Updated on May 13, 2019

Life versus death and the hereafter, the Celts' outlook

The Celts' Tree of Life - similar to the Norse Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree. Everything stems from the ground: life, food, tools, dwellings and new life from old.
The Celts' Tree of Life - similar to the Norse Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree. Everything stems from the ground: life, food, tools, dwellings and new life from old. | Source
Child sacrifice ornament - to bring a better harvest? Many ways were sought to improve life, including ritual slaying of the prettiest, the handsomest, token kings. Druids were the real aristocrats, who ruled men's minds.
Child sacrifice ornament - to bring a better harvest? Many ways were sought to improve life, including ritual slaying of the prettiest, the handsomest, token kings. Druids were the real aristocrats, who ruled men's minds. | Source
See description below
See description below | Source

Spreading west from the cradle of mankind, the Celts developed their culture, bringing it through Gaul, to Iberia and on westward and northward across the land bridge to Britain and what became the northern islands when the seas rose... Alice Roberts (remember her from the 'Coast' series on BBC and UK TV?) looks closely at a people rich in imagery, yet savage enough to collect the heads of their defeated foes. Foreword by Scots archaeologist Neil Oliver, her colleague on 'Coast'.

The seduction of Junon

Roman god Jupiter and Junon - Rome seeks to lure Gaul into servitude
Roman god Jupiter and Junon - Rome seeks to lure Gaul into servitude | Source
The locations of the Celts around the perimeter of the Roman Empire before expansion into Gaul and Britain
The locations of the Celts around the perimeter of the Roman Empire before expansion into Gaul and Britain

Immortality, infant interment, Romano-Celtic deity 'exchange' and the Cambrian Itinerary (Welsh legends)

IMMORTALITY of the soul was a belief held first by the Celts. It was a notion of rebirth after death, but that when someone died they merely changed places or worlds. This was why the Celts did not only inter the corpses but left them with all they would need to keep them going in the Otherworld. It was the preparation for a long, long journey. The belief was in a perpetual passage of the soul going on between the world they left and that which they were headed for. The thinking behind this was that not only was death in this world the means of sending souls on, but an existence ending in the Otherworld brought a soul to this - they are said to have at times mourned births and celebrated deaths;

INFANT INTERMENT is evident through ritual involving infant mortality in Celtic culture. Whether the children died of natural causes or from the outcome of sacrifice.may be unknown, but it is thought infant interment may have been viewed as a means of forestalling the gods' wrath or in the way of a blessing on someone.

It has been proved that infant corpses were part of the foundations of shrines and sanctuaries. At a shrine in Cambridgeshire dead infants were interred wearing shoes much too large for their feet, perhaps because it was thought they would 'grow into them' in the Otherworld.

INTERPRETATIO CELTICA is a term applied to the fusion of Celtic and Roman religious cults. It may have been through this 'fusion' of beliefs that Roman gods were taken into the Celts' pantheon or set of beliefs. Roman gods were sometimes given Celtic titles, such as Jupiter = Taranis. The opposite was the process by which the Romans saw some of the Celts' deities as part of their own religious 'fabric'. The Romans named the Celtic goddess Sulis of Bath Sulis Minerva by a 'hybridisation process known as 'interpretatio romana', a term used by the Roman scribe Tacitus ('Aquae Sulis' is the name the Romans gave to the spa settlement we now call Bath). When the Romans occupied Britannia Major (the territory we associate as being England) they brought outside gods and goddesses from other corners of the empire, such as Mithras. It is likely native-born Celts worshipped some gods with the Romans in the commercial centre of Londinium (London). Some of the Roman emperors, such as Augustus, were deified in their lifetime and statues were erected around the colony; Celts threw treasured objects into rivers and lakes, even weapons that had first been rendered useless, i.e., bent double. The Romans adopted the belief, dropping valuable rings from bridges as they crossed for a blessing from the river gods or goddesses, such as were found along the course of the bridge over the Tees to Piercebridge (the river has since changed course, leaving the bridge over dry land), the subject of an early Time Team episode;.

ITINERARIUM CAMBRIAE (Cambrian Itinerary) - the Norman-Welsh chronicler and cleric Geraldus Cambriensis or Gerald of Wales (c. AD 1146-1223) wrote the 'Hinierarium Cambriensis' after crossing Wales in AD 1188 with the then Archbishop of Canterbury. An important source of Welsh legend, it is a record of everything he was told, however far-fetched or unlikely. (Many of the Celts' legends were tall stories, stretching credibility, as you will see in a later part of this series)

Gerald of Wales and Knot-work Torques

The Norman-Welsh chronicler and historian, Gerald of Wales unearthed legend and history, separating them to make sense of Wales' past
The Norman-Welsh chronicler and historian, Gerald of Wales unearthed legend and history, separating them to make sense of Wales' past | Source
Gold Celtic torc found at Snettisham, Norfolk - likely Iceni work represents twisted rope and Knotwork (see below) -  on exhibition at the British Museum, London WC1
Gold Celtic torc found at Snettisham, Norfolk - likely Iceni work represents twisted rope and Knotwork (see below) - on exhibition at the British Museum, London WC1 | Source

Celts Knot-work

A simpler form of Celtic art work, that would with time become more involved
A simpler form of Celtic art work, that would with time become more involved | Source
Another Celtic art form, the use of animal motifs in decorating brooches or ornamental earthenware became widespread - and was borrowed extensively by other cultures in the British Isles (Manx-Norse, for example)
Another Celtic art form, the use of animal motifs in decorating brooches or ornamental earthenware became widespread - and was borrowed extensively by other cultures in the British Isles (Manx-Norse, for example) | Source

ITALY was an area of Gaulish settlement in the fourth century BC. A warlike nation, around 39 BC they attacked Rome. In exacting revenge the Romans took over Gaul and pushed the Celts northward;

JUDON was the wife of Gorboduc, a British king said to be an offspring of Brutus. She was mother to two sons, Ferrex and Porrex, and when Porrex slew his brother she in turn slew him. judon and Gorboduc then had no successors and neither of their dead sons had an heir. When Gorboduc and Judon died with them therefore died the blood line;

KAMBER was a son of Brutus, brother of Loerinus and Albanactus. In the death of his father he became king over the Britons in the west, Locrinus king in Britannia Major (now England) and Albanactus was king in Pictland (now part of eastern Scotland). Kamber and Locrinus defeated a tribe from across the sea to the east after the death of Albanactus;

KELTOI, the northern tribes of Barbarians who threatened the Roman empire from western and central Europe. The term may be the origin of the word 'Celt';

KEYS are seen on several images of Celtic goddesses. It is thought keys may be symbolic of the skill of certain goddesses to open.the gates of the Otherworld, allowing those who worshipped them to pass from one life to the next. Keys were also a sign of authority, in that the Celts - as the Norsemen - treated their women with respect, and that the household of a Celtic nobleman or chief was invariably entrusted to the lady of the house;

KNOT-WORK is one of the most common designs on Celtic crosses and other types of sculpture or stone work. as the description hints, the patterns are centred on designs based or founded on knot work - good examples were found on Celtic and later Norse crosses in the north-west of England, as well as on jewellery items. Danish Norse incomers developed the knot-work a stage further in their own style, with mythical beasts such as Fenrir the Wolf and Jormungand the World Serpent in the Borre style on hog-backed gravestones found in East and North Yorkshire;

Next - 7: Cymru - gods and fables

Celtic Key Artistry

Celtic styled key and chain - Celtic ladies were entrusted with the household in the same way as the Norse women
Celtic styled key and chain - Celtic ladies were entrusted with the household in the same way as the Norse women | Source
Celtic iron interlaced loop key style
Celtic iron interlaced loop key style | Source

© 2013 Alan R Lancaster

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    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Graham and Mel, thanks for dropping by. Seen the first five yet? There's more to come on this one - I think I can squeeze a few more out of this theme. Next one's on the Welsh myths and gods (plenty of the old un-pronouncables to get on with... Get your gargle-box working on them)! After that it's the Gaelic garglers, covering both sides of the Irish Sea.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      5 years ago from San Diego California

      Fascinating history and photos. There are a lot of things we do not know about our heritage but should.

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 

      5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      Hi Alan. Your research is awesome. I have read your hub three times and each time I absorb a little more. First class as usual.

      Voted up and all.

      Graham.

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