In Ancient Gaul, religion was not just saying a quick prayer at breakfast and then not thinking about it for the rest of the day. Throughout the world and history, religion has been a cornerstone of culture, influencing morality, laws and customs, and inspiring art, literature and architecture. In Toutâ Galation, we are not only interested in worshipping the ancient Gaulish deities; we aim to build a community connected by shared values and customs. This does not mean that we expect all Gaulish Polytheists to think, act, pray, give devotion or perform ritual in the same way! Our modern community is as diverse in beliefs and activities as the ancients Gauls were likely to be, and this guide cannot represent every single Gaulish Polytheist’s practice. Furthermore, although we aim to build a historically informed practice, we also have to adapt ancient rituals to our modern setting and values. Nobody is advocating for human sacrifice in our modern age!
It’s important to note that we can never reconstruct with certainty the “true” practices of the ancient Gauls; we can only seek to develop a practice that we believe to be in the spirit of the ancients. That said, there are a number of elements of ancient Gaulish religious practice that we can put together, from both contemporary historical accounts and archaeology. Further, studying the medieval Gaelic and Brythonic texts may give us an insight into commonalities with their earlier Celtic ancestors. Lastly, learning from comparative studies of other Indo-European cultures, as well as syncretic practices with neighbouring regions, can give us a glimpse of possible practices.
The ancient Gauls likely practiced a form of animism, i.e. they believed that elements of the landscape had spiritual essence, and this led to the development of cult practices around lakes, springs, groves, particular hills or stones, etc (Green, 1997). Water seems to have held particular significance, with archaeological evidence of votive offerings such as ritually destroyed weapons, images of heads and other body parts, and miniature tools among other items found in bogs, lakes, rivers and by springs across the continent and spanning centuries (Green, 1997; Roberts, 2015). Until the Gallo-Roman period, there is little surviving archaeological evidence of what we would classically consider a “temple”, shrine or holy place built by human hands: it is possible that cult sites were built temporarily, with resources that degraded more quickly over time (such as wood), or that the location of worship was more important than the building itself. That said, a number of religious sites have been found that display typical characteristics for their time and space.
The ancient nemeton was an outdoors sanctuary, a consecrated sacred grove or clearing. The term recurs in place names such as Medionemeton, names of deities such as Arnemetia or Nemetona, and names of tribes such as the Nemetes (Cunliffe, 2018; Delamarre, 2003, p. 233; Koch, 2006, p. 1351). From classical authors such as Tacitus, Lucan and Pliny, we know that the Druids gathered and performed sacrifices in oak groves (“Classical Authors on the Continental Celts,” n.d.). Many nemeta contained a well or a pit, in which offerings were left. This leads Segomaros Widugeni to conclude that aside from the “Sky” connection found in the root “Nemos”, nemeta also provided a gateway to the Otherworld below (Delamarre, 2003, p. 233; Widugeni, 2016a). Wells and pits as locations for votive and animal sacrifice have been found across the continent, from the mysterious Viereckschanzen of southern Germany and the Czech Republic.
Modern Gaulish Polytheists usually don’t have the space to build a large nemeton. They may opt to set up an indoor or outdoor altar space, with a candle to represent the fire, and smaller representations of the Dewoi (these representations are known as Delwas) to leave offerings for. During a ritual, many Gaulish Polytheists symbolically mark the boundaries of their sacred space (Widugeni, 2016b). Like the ancient Gauls and Continental Celts, modern Gaulish Polytheists also recognise the land as sacred and may use notable places such as groves, springs or rocks as locations for rituals and worship.
An important part of many polytheistic/pagan practices, including many Gaulish practices, is the gifting circle or cycle (Cantos Râti). One offers to the Dewoi, ancestors or local spirits, so that They may give in return. This cycle is not transactional so much as reciprocal: the gift giver and receiver are brought closer together thanks to the gifts. Most commonly, offerings are made and rituals are performed at an altar; having a devotional space or altar is, therefore, a practical component for basic practice.
Both modern and ancient Gaulish Polytheists practice offering to the Dewoi. In our modern times, animal sacrifice is not practical or socially acceptable for many people. However, animal sacrifice is not the only way the ancient Gauls offered to the Dewoi. It is likely that in ancient times, craftsmen made specific items to be purchased and offered as votives (Roberts, 2017). In our times, it is still possible to buy items with the goal of giving them as offerings. Unfortunately, there are fewer craftspeople who make items specifically for the Gaulish Dewoi. Further, the economic environment we live in prioritizes consumerist behaviours, so the act of purchasing an item has different connotations, and it is often not possible to trace the origin of the item. Therefore, making our own crafts has become much more important, both as a means of countering consumerism, thereby reducing environmental pressures and as a devotional activity. We offer our time and labour to the Dewoi, as well as the final product. That said, a number of woodworkers, artists, and textile crafters are active in our community, and being able to support small businesses and community members can be considered a devotional activity.
Festivals, holidays and timekeeping
In the modern era, there has been an ongoing debate about when the Coligny calendar should start. In line with the Irish calendar, some believe Samonios, the first month, is in line with Samhain, marking the “dark” half of the year as the beginning. Others believe that Samonios is related to Samos, and Giamonios to Giamos – placing Samonios in the summer and Giamonios in the winter, and argue for a start on the summer solstice (“Coligny calendar,” n.d.; Widugeni, 2016c). It is likely that different times of the year held different degrees of significance for the many different tribes and regions throughout time.
In Toutâ Galation, as we are an umbrella organization for Gaulish Polytheists and not a tradition/custom in our own right, we are very selective with our holidays. The vast majority are modern interpretations of unknown festivals associated with particular traditions. We do, however, mark important occasions laid out by our founder Segomaros Widugeni such as Iwos Brigantia, Iwos Lugous, as well as historical events in the case of Cathu Alesia.
The role of community in the past and present
The rules of hospitality practiced by modern Gaulish Polytheists are modelled after the ancient rules described by contemporary authors (“Classical Authors on the Continental Celts,” n.d.). According to the ancient Keltoi, strangers should be welcomed, fed and given something to drink, before inquiring after who they are and what they might need (Diodorus, Book 5). Some modern Gaulish Polytheists, such as in the Rextoues of Toutâ Galation, interpret this as not only being a welcoming host, but also being able to maintain your own space and boundaries. It means being a generous host and a respectful guest.
In addition, the ways in which spiritual knowledge is kept and shared are greatly different. According to contemporary authors like Caesar, the ancient Keltoi relied on a secretive oral tradition that was passed on through generations of druids (“Classical Authors on the Continental Celts,” n.d.). After the conquest and assimilation of the Gauls by not only the Romans but Germanic peoples in the centuries that followed, as well as the processes of Christianisation throughout the first millennium AD, any true knowledge of the druidic practices has been lost. We live in very different times, with access to social media tools like discord, and where anybody can make a website thanks to platforms like WordPress. People across the globe may be interested in practicing Gaulish Polytheism, from eclectic polytheists to people interested in following a more organized tradition. As we are a very globally dispersed community, it would be deeply impractical to keep all our practices secretive and only pass them on through oral tradition. Further, Gaulish polytheism is open to anyone interested in it!
That said, there are traditions that require initiation. Those traditions have the possibility to keep their members in the loop thanks to apps like discord, which are more private than a public website.
A ritual format
The most widely used ritual format by Gaulish Polytheists is adapted from Widugeni’s, which was in turn adapted from Ceisiwr Serith’s Proto-Indo-European ritual format. This is because while we don’t have any detailed accounts of Gaulish ritual, we do have the ability to observe and compare neighbouring traditions to make an educated guess about what a Gaulish ritual likely contained. Check out Segomaros’ The Basic Ritual Outline for further reading.
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Cunliffe, B.W., 2018. The ancient Celts, Second edition. ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom.
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