Dating back to the Late Bronze Age, the ancient Celts were a group of tribes who originated from Central Europe. Over time, the Celts migrated across much of Western Europe including Britain and Ireland, spreading their language and customs along with them.
Bestowed with the name ‘Celts’ by ancient writers, they were never a single nation or empire but rather a collection of diverse tribes with a shared culture, traditions and religious beliefs. It is the latter that we focus on here.
Our knowledge of the Celtic deities is somewhat limited due to the fact stories about them were never written down by the Celts but instead passed on via oral tradition before finally being documented by later writers. However, we know enough to understand that Celtic mythology contained a rich, varied and colourful pantheon of gods and goddesses.
We take a look at seven of the most important.
The Tuatha Dé Danann were a collection of supernatural beings that lived in the Otherworld but were able to interact with human beings within the mortal realm. The Dagda was their leader, making him the head of the pantheon of Celtic gods.
Often depicted as a large, powerful and bearded father-like figure wielding a club, his name is thought to mean ‘the Good God’. The Dagda was associated with fertility, agriculture, manliness and the weather.
A master of magic, his club had the dual ability to kill with one end and grant life with the other. He also owned a cauldron that never ran out and a harp that could alter the seasons as well as the emotions of men.
The Morrígan was the goddess of battle, war and fate. However, she was not just one person but rather a trio of individuals known as Macha, Nemain and Badb who were said to each represent different aspects of combat.
Her name is translated as ‘Great Queen’ or ‘Phantom Queen’ and the mysterious Morrígan would shapeshift into the form of a crow or raven and fly over battlefields, either striking fear into those below or encouraging them in the fight. She had the power to influence the result of any battle, whilst also foretelling the deaths of warriors, making her a rather ominous deity.
She was romantically linked with The Dagda and aided him to victory during a great war against the Fomorians, the adversaries of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Although he was one of the last to be added to the pantheon of Celtic gods, Lugh was one of the most important gods in Celtic mythology and a prominent member of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Historians have argued that the Christian saint St. Brigid, one of Ireland's patron saints, is a Christianisation of the goddess
Often described as a youthful warrior, king and craftsman, Lugh was a master of nearly everything. Wielding a sling stone and a magical invincible spear, he was said to have slain Balor, the one-eyed tyrant leader of the Fomorians, leading the Tuatha Dé Danann to victory over their bitter rivals. The courageous warrior god went on to father Cú Chulainn, one of the most famous Celtic heroes who achieved numerous great deeds.
As the daughter of The Dagda, Brigid is a member of Tuatha Dé Danann and is associated with healing, fire, wisdom, blacksmithing, cattle and poetry, placing her in contrast to the more foreboding Morrígan. However, like Morrígan she may have also have been a triple deity, worshipped in equal measure for her healing, her poetry and her forging.
Brigid’s name means the ‘Exalted One’ and the Gaelic springtime festival held on February 1, known as Imbolc, is said to have originally been a celebration associated with Brigid.
In fact, historians have argued that the Christian saint St. Brigid, one of Ireland's patron saints, is a Christianisation of the goddess and not actually a real person.
Tuatha Dé Danann means ‘The People of the Goddess Danu’ making Danu the matriarch of the Celtic pantheon. However, we don’t know a great deal about the goddess who gave her name to the great Celtic mythological tribe. Other goddesses have been linked with her including Ana, meaning Danu was perhaps associated with nature.
Although she remains mysterious, her name alone suggests she was counted as one of the more important Celtic deities.
Son of The Dagda, the handsome god of love and youth was the chief poet of the Tuatha dé Danann and whose name means ‘True Vigour’.
According to mythology, The Dagda had an affair with the married river goddess known as Boann. Boann fell pregnant and so The Dagda made the sun stand still for nine months so that Aengus could be born in just a single day to cover up the illicit affair.
After coming of age, Aengus either tricked his father or was gifted (stories vary) the region of Brú na Bóinne in Ireland. He then fell in love with a girl in one of his dreams called Caer Ibormeith. After much searching, he finally found her amongst 150 other girls all destined to turn into swans. If he could identify her as a swan he would be permitted to marry her.
After transforming into a swan, he found her and they flew away together singing beautiful music that sent all those who heard it to sleep for three days and three nights. This story is the foundation in Celtic mythical tradition for Aengus’s status as the patron god of young lovers.
With such an association it’s not surprising that Aengus was often depicted with four birds chirping and circling his head. He was also said to be bestowed with the ability to woo any woman he chose and cause others to fall deeply in love.
The ‘Horned One’ was a Celtic god of wealth, animals, fertility and nature. Cernunnos was depicted wearing a torc, a large metal ring, with large antlers of a stag adorning his head.
He was often portrayed alongside horned creatures such as stags, bulls and even a horned serpent. His impressive visuals have gifted him the name 'The Lord of Wild Things'.