A few notes on the theorized original characteristics of the Gaulish religion(s)

I’ve been slowly making my way through Les religions gauloises by Jean-Louis Brunaux over the past several months. I really loved reading Les druides, which I had to return to the national library but am hoping to pick back up again soon. Les religions gauloises similarly does not disappoint. 

In this book, Brunaux decided not to refer to Gallo-Roman inscriptions, which are heavily relied upon by most Gaulish reconstructionists and polytheists when it comes to identifying and naming their gods—otherwise we would have a dire lack of names. Instead, Brunaux relies primarily on older archeology and protohistorical sources, covering several centuries before the Roman invasion, a theorized artistic and cultural height of the independent Gaulish peoples. Protohistorical, Brunaux tells us, is when we have a civilization whose people either did not use written records or whose written records did not survive to us in the modern age, so we have to read what their (often far-away) neighbours were writing about them. In this case, important sources include Julius Caesar, Timagenes, Strabo, and Posidonios, amongst others, which Brunaux uses to distill just a few essential characteristics of the ancient Gaulish polytheisms. The following are my notes on just a fraction of them.

Please note that these notes are far from complete and are posted here for my own sake. Enjoy at your own risk!

Ancient, pre-Roman Gaul (5 to 1 century BC) was never centralized — and neither were its religions

Brunaux comments that either the gods had been worshipped there so long that their cult seemed eternal, or the Celts that moved West brought their gods with them. In any case, no divine genealogies, ritual rules, or myths have survived to us today. Brunaux writes: 

“that in many cities the divine represented an inextricable abundance that the religious mind of the Celts did not seek to organize. Order and hierarchy were not amongst them cardinal virtues.” (Les religions gauloise, Jean-Louis Brunaux, 20, translation mine)

À propos de rien, I find this statement very amusing, because it contrasts so heavily with the very modern French love of inexorably complex bureaucracies.

The theory that Gaulish religious life was very personal, individual even, seems to hold true

Despite the many archeological finds of Gaulish sanctuaries (which several were likely built by the people who came before the Gauls), Brunaux characterises the ancient Gaulish Polytheisms as being, before all, an “individual religion,” and believes that this is the fact that motivated Caesar to write in his famous memoirs that all Gaulish people are devoted to their religion. If the heart of religious life was intimate, individual, personal — even domestic — it could explain why it was never codified on a scale larger than the places where these religions were practiced. Even Caesar, in making (his few) statements about the religious life of the Gauls, restrained himself to saying “in some cities” or “amongst some peoples,” because these practices were regional, anchored to their locales. (Also, Caesar was a cunning politician, and remaining vague is a political tactic as old as dirt.)

As someone who used to call my religion bio-regional animism (I look back on it fondly, but what a pretentious name!) I am very compelled by the theory that the ancient Gauls were practicing a religion that was before anything else local. Instead of imposing religious calendars or practices on a specific territory, instead it was the territory and specific history and seasons of a place which informed religious practice. 

The importance of holy sites in particular endured the end of Gaul’s independence from the Romans. Brunaux remarks that while the Gaulish religion lost its priests and many of the particularity of its practices as the Romans came in and the Empire unfolded itself, the descendants of the Gauls managed to hold onto nearly all of their ancient holy sites.

What about religion in the context of Gaulish society?

“No religion can be understood except in relation to its society and culture in which it is as much its product as its crucible.” (Les religions gauloises by Jean-Louis Brunaux, 42, translation mine)

Brunaux writes that it is very plausible that at the beginnings of Gaulish societies, religion was a domestic, family affair. Its public expression probably came from the king’s household, where the king’s public cultus (practice) was as much a tool for accumulating religious power as it was for asserting social, military and political power. Brunaux mentions that there are parallels to be made to ancient Italic settlements, though I don’t think he goes further in detail in this text.

The traditions of druids, bards, and soothsayers (“devins” in French) established themselves around the military classes to become the formal orders eventually known to Caesar and his contemporaries. Ancient writers such as Sabo, Posidonius, and Timagenes describe (if insufficiently—sometimes even contradictorily) how these religious classes presided over three intimately related religious and societal functions such as sacrifices (associated in particular with devins or vates), divination, and the understanding of the laws of nature. To these religious orders we can also add two further hypotheticals: that of gutuater, perhaps a type of (common?) priest, and the antistes, who might have been sanctuary guardians. 

Amongst the historical confusion, it’s important to remember that Posidonius (perhaps one of Caesar’s most important sources?) was writing in the first century before our era, and Brunaux also believes that most of his information was sourced from older texts now lost to us. Sabo and Timagenes were likely also copying from texts now lost. Brunaux also proposes another theory, inspired in part by a different ancient, Diodore of Sicily, that posits that at the time Posidonius was writing, the devins-sacrificateurs (soothsayers-sacrificers) likely represented an older world older —the one that perhaps had been a part of the Gauls as they moved West from the steppes of Eastern Europe ? — and whose political power was slowly being displaced by the newer, aristocratic-judicial-scientific class of druids that Posidonius describes.

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