As the focus of our organisation is Gaulish Polytheism, it is fitting that we speak a little bit about the Gauls of the past. We understand that in many places, folks simply don’t know much about the Gauls. (I didn’t until a couple of years before I got into Gaulish Polytheism myself!)
By providing some background on the Gauls, we hope to provide those who may not know much about them with a little more understanding. This isn’t so much a scholarly treatise as it is something of a “primer”.
The Hallstatt Culture: A Throwback
The predecessors of the Gauls, culturally speaking at least, lived in what is now northern Austria, northeastern Switzerland, and southern Germany. Hallstatt is a town in Austria, and the discovery of many Iron Age burials led to the town, known for its nearby salt mines, to give its name to the historic culture. Iron Age burials aside, there are artefacts from there dating to the Bronze Age, so there was quite a long continuum of that culture there.
Funny thing about those salt mines is that the folks living in that area in the latter part of the Bronze Age and early Iron Age knew about them as well. Over 3000 years ago, they too were taking salt out of the ground. Back then, salt was especially important since it was used to preserve food. Having control of the salt mines meant that the folks in the area did pretty well.
Other than mining salt, they farmed. Something else noteworthy about the Hallstatt Culture was their metalwork. Ancient Celtic peoples were often known for their metalworking skills. As can be seen in the picture below, they had been good at it for quite some time.
We know they spoke a precursor to Gaulish. There have been linguistic reconstructions aimed at what the language of the folks looked like. Though we can’t really know for sure. Generally, that language is called Proto-Celtic. Though there is a more recent hypothesis suggesting an Iberian origin for the language, right now the prevailing scholarship says the Hallstatt Culture was among the first to speak what we would call a Celtic language.
The thing about salt being a precious commodity is that a lot of people wanted it. This would especially be the case for the larger societies to the south along the Mediterranean. The goods they got from those cultures and ideas exchanged with them led to an evolution in Hallstatt Culture. Getting further into the Iron Age, the Hallstatt Culture gave way to a marker of that evolution. The LaTêne Culture was the product of it.
Enter the Gauls
As trade with the Mediterranean grew, and society itself started to shift, leading to more warrior aristocracies and the like, making awesome cult wagons, bronze bulls, and mining salt just wasn’t enough anymore. So, society went through the aforementioned shift and those old bonds didn’t hold, but the culture started to expand further. Halstatt Culture reached Iberia and just kind of knicked southern Britain. It was particularly prevalent in what is now France.
LaTêne Culture not only encompassed these places, but made it all the way to Ireland. Northern Italy, the central Balkans, and even central Turkey also bore witness to the LaTêne Culture. One of its key bearers was the Gauls. To be clear, most of whom we now think of as Gauls didn’t call themselves such. The Greeks called them “Celtoi” which is how we get the word “Celt”. A word meaning “outsider, barbarian”.
That said, the term wasn’t just applied to people of a Celtic culture or speakers of a Celtic language. Of course the modern understanding of the term “Celt” is different, as it applies to past and currently spoken languages, as well as contemporary cultures in Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. In the past, in the Iron Age however, Celtic languages and cultures flourished over much of central and western Europe.
The Gauls were tribal people who had tribal identities. The Romans called them Gauls, but this didn’t extend over all of the areas in which Gaulish was spoken. Often it was used to refer to their northern neighbours in what is today northern Italy, and most of what is now France, Belgium, Luxembourg, southwest Germany, and western Switzerland. Not all of the Gaulish speaking or cultured people were called Gauls in that case.
As was mentioned earlier, the Gauls never thought of themselves as one people. They were more than happy to fight each other as any non-Gaulish tribes. To them, they were Carnutes, Treveri, Sequanni, Helvetii, Arverni, Pictones, Remi, Aedui, Santones, Insubres, etc. For us today, Gauls is a term of convenience. Gaul was never ruled by a single person or tribe, though they could and did ally with other tribes when it suited them.
The Gauls were farmers, like many other peoples of the day. They also were traders, craftsmen, priests, and politicians. No doubt that they also boasted fine warriors. Folks remember their defeat at the hands of the Romans, but it took a long time for Rome to be able to conquer Gaul. Not only that, but the Senones under Brennus sacked Rome in 390 BCE. This would not happen again until the Visigoths in 410 CE. Another interesting thing about Gaulish warriors is that some would sever the heads of their more powerful or higher ranking foes. They would then preserve them in jars of oil. Apparently they were a good conversation piece!
One of the more enigmatic classes of Gaulish society was that of the Druids. Not much is known about the fascinating people who filled this role. It is said that they were priests, but the Gauls already had priests. The Druids were not only a type of priest, but basically the learned class of Gaulish society. So they also served as judges, doctors, astronomers, and diviners. They were said to be able to ride between two opposing lines at war and stop the battle. Also, they are said to have led sacrifices. Furthermore, it is said that they stressed memorising their teachings, which is a great pity because it means their learning was never written down.
Bards were poets and musicians, and another important position was that of the Uelitâ, or seeress. Originally, Gaulish tribes had kings, and some tribes might have maintained them. In time, they came to be goverened by a magistrate and a type of ruling council. The magistrate, or the Uergobret, had powers checked by a council. They also had a limit on how long they could hold their position.
Facets of the Old Religion
We’d be dishonest to say that we have some perfect understanding of the Senobessoues (Old Customs). We don’t, and that’s practically impossible. Pantheons, in these neat little families of Gods? Ha! Not here. There were surely some Gods that were known throughout much of what we call Gaul, widely worshipped. Taranis, Eponâ, Belenos, Carnonos, Sironâ, and so on. Most inscriptions of Gods however, only show up once, or a few times.
Clearly, like other peoples religions of the time, Gaulish religion was Polytheist in nature. This means that they worshipped many distinct deities. Gaulish religion was also animistic — names were given to natural formations and parts of the land. Landscapes themselves were seen to be alive. This also includes rivers, springs, and lakes. These landscapes were always thought to be presided over by a deity.
Holidays were observed in a fashion related to the movements of the moon and the seasons. It isn’t known if all tribes used the same system to calculate the months, seasons, and holidays. What has been found was a calendar used by the Sequanni tribe in the town of Coligny, in eastern France.
The calendar is lunisolar, which implies that they attempted to reconcile the lunar months with the solar year. The notation “IVOS” is seen around the transitional points in the months. The last few days of one month, the first few days of the next. The word “IVOS”, Îuos, means “feast”. So it stands to reason that these were holidays. There is controversy over when the first month Samonios starts in comparisom yo our year, and there is also controversy over what phase of the moon denoted the start of the months. Asking even scholars today means getting different answers.
We know of feast days, that they existed, but what did they eat? We know they were farmers, and so they ate grains. Mainly spelt and barley, though wheat wasn’t unknown. They knew how to make dairy products and so consumed milk. They had access to legumes such as lentils, and some fruits like plums and apples, as well as berries such as raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, currants, and sloe. In spite of the stereotypes, boar was rarely eaten, and there wasn’t much wild game in their diet. So pork from pigs, beef, and mutton tended to be more popular. Wine was imported, and they drank mead and beer.
The Gauls were in many different tribes, and though there were certainly commonalities, they still had diverse cultures and religious practices. Generally, groups of families formed clans, and groups of clans formed tribes. As was stated earlier, some were led by kings, some by magistrates. Each had some kind of council of elders, officers, etc.
The tribes sometimes fought each other, or non-Gauls. Stronger tribes had weaker tribes around them that paid them tribute. However, if a tribe was too ruthless, it was possible to appeal to another tribe who may intervene. This would put the client or satellite tribe under a different stronger tribe. So, there was risk in poorly treating another tribe. Gaulish societies were complicated in both internal and external relations.
When It Falls Down
The Gauls and the Romans never quite got on with one another. Though they did trade, they also often fought. The Gauls were quite frightening to the Romans, who never quite forgot their capital being sacked by the Gaulish Senones tribe under Brennus. The rise of a debt saddled general Julius Caesar would seal Gaul’s fate. Though they fought bravely the Romans cut through Gaul. The rise of one leader, Vercingetorix of the Arverni stemmed the tide briefly, winning a great victory at the Battle of Gergovia. However, later on, this great leader was defeated in a seige at Alesia. By 52 BCE, after seven years of resistance, a free Gaul was no more.
After all was said and done, one million Gauls were killed. Many not from fighting, but from starvation and another million were taken into slavery. Sometimes whole towns. A large fraction of the population ended up either dead or a slave. One might say that it was unfortunate that the Gauls failed to unite against the Roman threat soon enough. A very sad episode in history as many people were wiped out, and it meant a slow decline of these cultures. As well as the subjugation of once proud and free peoples.
In the centuries following the conquest of Gaul, a Gallo-Roman culture emerged. This wasn’t necessarily the end of Gaulish culture, as Roman motifs and art styles gave more outlets to convey Gaulish religious idea. Syncretism undoubtedly occured, and interpretations of cult in Gaul borrowed from Roman contexts, but also used Roman motifs for their own ends.
As the Roman Empire declined, and Christianity was introduced to them, Gaulish religion slowly died out. It seems that the Gaulish language was also dying a slow death. By the fifth and sixth centuries, neither existed any longer. The Franks and Visigoths came in and picked up where the Romans left off. For all intents and purposes, the Gauls no longer existed. Without their language, religion, and culture, they were absorbed eventually into various other peoples.
Today, people throughout the world have been inspired by the Gauls in some way. Some are re-enactors, and the Gauls often hold a place in French history. Though the Gauls lived in many more places, and their descendants likely live around the world. Of course, the Gauls themselves, or many of them, were not likely descended from the first Celts. Many having already being descended from other peoples, blood didn’t likely play much of a part in being Gaulish.
Some people of course have been inspired to reconstruct the religions of the Ancient Gauls. Inspired by them and creating modern religions based upon what we know about the Gauls. Others have taken upon learning what remains of the Gaulish language. Many are involved in more than one of the above listed activities. Though loose and entirely decentralised, it seems forms of Gaulish revival are taking place. Be it through academic work, re-enactments, religion, music, literature, art, and other works — the Ancient Gauls inspire folks the world over to this day.