CELTIC RELIGION IN ROMAN BRITAIN by Graham Webster offers a rare glimpse into a culture from past times and ends with the assurance that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The past is ever with us in the form of religious practices, holidays, and rituals we cannot explain. Webster is a Reader Emeritus associated with the University of Birmingham in England-a scholar.
Webster reviews and distills what was known about Celtic religion in Britain as of 1986. He draws on material from various sources including archeological digs and his own background as a Latin scholar of Roman history. This book is only 141 pages long, but filled with rich detail. While we cannot know what the Celts thought, we can deduce much about their beliefs from the material they left behind in the form of everything from carved images to curse tablets. We can also deduce much from what others wrote about them.
The Celts were not a literate people when the island the Romans named 'Britannia' was invaded, but writers from literate societies, beginning with Greek ethnographers and geographers and including the Romans, especially Tacitus, Seneca, and Julius Caesar related a good deal about the Celtic people. The Greek ethnographers named them - Keltoi - pronounced with a hard K.
To a great extent, the early Romans allowed the Celts to practice their religion in relative peace (after they conquered them). Julius Caesar had a few harsh things to say about the Celts, but scholars know he was trying to drum up support for his military adventures when he described their "barbaric" behavior in letters to the Roman Senate. Fortunately, he was also an astute observer and recorded much of interest to modern scholars. Other Romans, especially the Stoics, also had interesting observations about the Celts, finding their monogamy, democratic attitudes, simple life styles, and the chastity of their women virtuous (and a far cry for what passed for "civil" behavior in Rome).
The Celts left behind a good deal of material, not enough to satisfy the avid scholar, but enough to make lay people happy. Webster says the Celts did not have a pantheon of gods and goddesses like the Romans, but they did have a few important deities, such as the Deae Matres (goddess mothers), Rosmerta (a goddess of fortune depicted with a cauldron and cornucopia), and Sulis the healer who became associated with Mercury. Many of the attributes of the Celtic gods and goddesses were later ascribed to Christian saints. Many of the practices such as leaving offerings at holy sites, lighting candles, immersion in holy water, and most of the holidays on the Christian calendar come from this period. (Webster suggests Christmas festivities may be based on the Roman holiday Saturnalia).
CELTIC RELIGION is an elegant little book and a great synopsis of a fascinating period.