I picked up Ancient Fire, An Introduction to Gaulish Celtic Polytheism, by Segomâros Widugeni on a whim, and I have to say I enjoyed reading the book. Widugeni’s book is 1) blissfully concise, 2) clear, and 3) is full of citations. As people might intuit from other posts on this blog, citations and citational politics/ethics are very important to me.
I’m really very glad that I’d already been digging through Jean-Louis Brunaux’s Les druides, des philosophes chez les Barbaresas well as his older Les Gaulois, sanctuaire et rites (reading notes forthcoming!) before picking up Widugeni. As difficult as it is to trudge through historical texts, it also gave me a more solid footing for interpreting Widugeni’s conclusions and reasonings in his reconstruction. It also allowed me to glimpse, from time to time, places where Widugeni and I may have differences in experience and opinion. More importantly, it allowed me to feel secure in my own dissenting feelings, which in practice meant I was still able to read and appreciate all the long years of work poured into this deceptively concise book without getting distracted by my own feelings!
The reconstructed Gaulish Worldview according to Widugeni
As my investigations of the past few months especially have been teaching me, a crucial aspect to reconstruction a religion has to do with worldview. Widugeni’s reconstructed cosmology is chiefly rooted in linguistics. The guiding principle is a duality,1 from which is derived samos, the cosmic principle of summer/life/mundane/order, and giamos, the cosmic principle of winter/death/magical/chaos. The tensions between these two principles are what create time and dictate the favourability of omens and magical activities.
Much more interesting than the above binary principles was Widugeni’s description of the Gaulish “worlds” or “realms”, many of them attested according to Widugeni. We therefore have Albios, the sky and domain of the Uranian (Celestial) gods; Nemos, referring to the mundane sky; Bitus, referring to “this World, home of humanity, animals, plants, and various spirits, acted upon by the Upper and Lowers Worlds” (26); Mori, the mundane sea; Dumnos, the Deep home of Cthonic deities, the dead, and certain other spirits; Bilios, a reconstructed Tree which Widugeni compares to the world tree, linking the Sky, Land, and the Deep. Mirroring the dualist cosmic principles, each realm — except for Bitus — can be split into two.
Another terribly interesting bit in these early pages of the book is Widugeni’s reporting of Delmarre’s work on the Gaulish language. The Gauls2 had their own terms for describing Uranian (Celestial) and Chthonic spirits and realms. Ueronados for Uranian, pertaining to Albios; Andernados for Chthonic, pertaining to Dumnos.
More thoughts on linguistics, the Dêwoi
Widugeni described “Dêwoi/Dêwos/Dewâ” as the Gaulish word for “God” — it is a little unclear to me, from reading Ancient Fire, if Dewâ refers to the feminine case (in the singular?) I have a lot of questions concerning cases and the reconstruction/linguistic archeology being done on Gaulish. Primarily, I wonder about the limitations/drawbacks about using linguistic reconstruction as the driving factor in the creation of a religious worldview. There’s also an accessibility issue here, as the reliance on (often reconstructed) Gaulish by many Gaulish polytheists is an additional barrier to understanding/puzzling out what is going on and what is being said. Especially when there exists ambiguity concerning the meanings of these words.
Some other questions I have on chapter 3, which discusses the Gaulish Gods and Goddesses, is the reliance on Garrett Olmsted for the translations of the epithets/titles/names. One good thing is that Widugeni rarely presents Olmsted’s translations in a vacuum and usually gives at least one other historian/linguist’s take on the name. Considering Ancient Fire was published in 2018, I do think there could have been a stronger effort to contextualize that many of Olmsted’s interpretations as being considered rather out of date by contemporary scholars!
The fourth chapter, on sanctuaries and rituals, and which at a glance seems to cite Brunaux the most, was especially interesting to me. Having a template of how one practically practices a reconstructed religion based on archeological findings and scraps of what literature we have is essential. This is also the chapter in which Widugeni’s Gardenarian (Wiccan) roots seem most apparent to me, especially in the section “Other Sacred Things” on page 80 and from time to time in the Ritual Outline —“So Mote It Be,” in particular—, but it’s not especially distracting.
The “Basic Ritual Outline” on pages 81-95 is pretty fascinating, and if anything, I would have liked to see Widugeni dig into it more. In particular, I would have loved a little more meat (pun intended) on the two short paragraphs on acceptable offerings, and a few more citations!
Time Is A Hard Concept
I have been procrastinating slightly on really digging my teeth into the Coligny calendar because, well, that shit’s bananas. Widugeni’s chapter on the calendar and Gaulish perspectives on time is a rather good recap of the nonsense and various scholarly controversies!
I do appreciate a concise little book! If you’re interested in taking a peek at Widugeni’s worldviews and his various take on Gaulish Polytheistic reconstruction, I highly recommend getting a look at his blog over on Polytheist.com.
1 According to Widugeni’s own footnotes, this seems largely borrowed from the work Celtic linguist, Tolkien scholar, and (Bootleg?) Gardnerian Wiccan/Christian Alexei Kondratiev.
2 Gaulish/Celtic words used to describe their Hellenistic neighbours, or used within their own religions? If the latter, perhaps another clue that the Hellenistic split between Olympian and Cthonic deities may have travelled further than the Greek peninsula or could reflect an older worldview shared between many different cultures. Though this may fly in the face of scholar John Chadwick’s 1976 hypothesis that the “chthonic element represents the religion of the pre-hellenic peoples and the Olympian element the religion of the proto-Greek newcomers.” (The Mycenaean World, p. 85)