The Celtic Vedic Connection: Part I
Of all the great ancient cultures perhaps no two share more parallels than those of the Celtic and Vedic peoples. A deep rooted affinity runs between them, what is present in one is mirrored in the other. Myths, Gods, Goddesses, even fairy tales bear a striking similarity in these archaic reflections of one another.
This is the first of two articles introducing the connection between Celtic and Vedic religion, society and folklore. In this and the following article the many similarities between the two cultures will be explored in a comparative context. For easy reading I have separated this article into several categories. These are the Druids & the Brahmins, Gods & Goddesses, Danu in Celtic & Vedic Myth, Places of Worship and Celtic & Vedic Fairies. Each of these topics only skims the suface and future further research will undoubtly reveal much more into the parallels of these two great cultures. It should be stated that for the sake of not complicating matters most of the Celtic references in this article are Irish. Although Celtic religion and culture varied from country to country this has not been discussed as this article is only an introduction to this field. Though it is worth noting that the various Celtic peoples were not a uniform culture.
The Druids & the Brahmins
The easiest of parallels to be drawn between the Celtic and Vedic peoples must be that of the Druids and the Brahmins. The Druids and the Brahmins were both the priests and philosophers of their respective cultures. Both orders of priests were the wise ones of their lands, the seers and teachers, to whom warriors and kings turned for counsel and advice. They were free to wander the lands, as many of India's holy men still do, and, according to Caesar's writings, the Druids were "held with great honour by the people".
However it appears to be a gross simplification to consider the Druids one homogeneous group whose function was only that of priest or philosopher. There may have been three divisions within the Celtic religious order, that of Bard, Vate and Druid. Historical evidence of this is to be found in the writings of Strabo (40 BCE - 25 CE), 'Among all the tribes, generally speaking, there are three classes of men held in special honour: the Bards the Vates and the Druids.' However I have chosen to leave discussion of the three grades for another time as it would detract from the focus of this particular article.
The name 'Druid' is considered by some to have originated the mediterranean and the East. The first syllable of the word 'Druid', according to Pliny the Elder (1 CE), is related to the Greek word for the Oak tree, 'drus'. The root of which is 'dr' and it is to be found in several Aryan languages. The second syllable is thought to have originated from the sanskrit word 'vid', meaning 'knowledge', which is also the root of the term 'Vedas'. If this is accurate then the Druids would have been those who possess the 'knowledge of the Oak tree'. The Oak tree in Celtic myth and legend was closely associated with knowledge and wisdom. In old Irish the term 'Druid' is the plural, referring to more than one of the Celtic holy men, whereas the singular is drui. In order to avoid confusion the term 'Druid' in this article will be used to refer to a single Druid and the term 'Druids' to refer to more than one.
Like the Brahmins, the Druids wore simple clothing. The clothing of the Druids, from what evidence remains, seems to have been a white or undyed hooded robe. It is from the writings of Pliny the Elder that the image of a Druid in his flowing white robes, cutting mistletoe with a golden sickle has now became a popular image of the ancient Druids.
Druid collecting mistletoe
The clothing of the Druids is rather contrasting when compared to some of the clothing, and jewellery, found in the rest of Celtic culture. Often the textiles worn by the Celts were rich in colour and design, in particular their cloaks. The Celts were also avid wearers of golden jewellery and of their jewellery the torque is probably the most recognisable item worn. Virgil gives a classical description of the Celts in writing, "Golden is their hair, and golden their garb. They are resplendent in their striped cloaks, and their milk-white necks are circled with gold." The torque was a neck ornament of nobility, regularly made of gold, worn by males and if we look at the Gundestrup Cauldron it can also be found around the neck of Cernunnos. The Romans during their invasion of Britain were intrigued by these bold and heavy neck displays. So much so that they awarded their soldiers with them in recognition of acts of bravery.
A Celtic Torque
The Druids and their daily activities of bathing in rivers is a mirror image of the Vedic Brahmins, who bathe during the first hours of sun rise in rivers such as the Ganges. Tacitus, a Greek historian, commented on the striking similarity of the bathing Druids to the Brahmins, suggesting they were "so emblematic of the brahmins." Morning bathing in rivers remains a daily activity for the Brahmins, and many Hindus, to this very day.
The Druids and the Brahmins occupied a similar place in the social hierarchy of their cultures. Both formed not only the spiritual elite but also the intellectual caste of society. It was also common for Indian kings (known as 'Rajas') to consult the Brahmins on matters of state, as it was also for Celtic kings (Old Irish - 'Righ'; note the similarity to the Sanskrit) to hold counsel with the Druids. Celtic and Vedic society were hierarchically structured, sharing similar segregated classes of peoples. Celtic culture was a tripartite system based on the three-fold divisions of: the spiritual leaders, the Druids; the ruling/warrior class; and a class of producers which included merchants, hunters and in later periods agricultural producers.
A similar social structure was employed in Vedic society for thousands of years (India has approximately 10, 000 years of continual history during which Vedic direction seems to have been present for the majority of that time). Commonly referred to as the 'caste system', which in recent years western culture has greatly condemned, Vedic culture is distinguished by four social stratas. The Brahmins were the highly respected priestly class; there also existed a regal/military class (the Kshatriyas); merchants and agriculturalist (the Vaishyas); lastly were the labourers or the untouchables (the Shudras). This class (varna) system finds it's sanction in the Rig Veda, book 10, hymn 90:12, and it is also addressed, although less directly, in book 1, 113:6. However there are references to the various castes in other Vedic texts, namely the Yajur Veda and the Artharva Veda. Later in Vedic history, into the period of classical Hinduism, social mobility ceased to exist. It should be noted that in 1947 (CE), Article 17 of the Indian Constitution abolished the practising of untouchability in any form. However many social commentators argue that this has did little to remove the practice.
As with Celtic society Greek historians also commented and noted down their impressions of Vedic society, recorded during the unsuccessful conquest of India by Alexander the Great. Among their observations was the lack of slavery, the equal right to freedom of all people, and that warfare was restricted to the Kshastriyas (warrior class). The overall impression was one of a society with a strong sense of morality and high ethical values.
On matters of state and law parallels can be found between the Vedic system of the Laws of Manu and the old Irish system, the Laws of the Fenechus. Before the Laws of Manu, in early Vedic culture, the Brahmins were not purely a hereditary caste. A child from any caste could be initiated into the Brahmin priesthood to begin their 12 years of training. However this upward social mobility later ceased. Upward social mobility was also possible in Celtic culture as a child picked to be a Druid could be from any of the social division groupings. Caesar tells us that the Druids went through 20 years of training. Though this may have more accurately been 19 years as the Druids may have used a 19 year lunar cycle calendar (the Meton cycle).
The Druids and the Brahmins, probably because of their extensive training, were regarded as being the only ones who could perform certain rites and sacrifices. Diodorus Siculus wrote that the Celts "do not sacrifice or ask favours from the Gods without a Druid present, as they believe sacrifice should be made only by those supposedly skilled in divine communication." The Celts not only held the ritual authority of the Druids in high esteem, the teachings of the Druids were also greatly respected. Men and women, young and old, would ask the Druids to share their wisdom with them on a variety of matters. One teaching that we are certain was prominent in Celtic culture was that of the doctrine of transmigration of souls, the process of death and rebirth. This is known from recorded myths and from the Roman and Greek writings. In the Rig Veda there is no clear reference to reincarnation, yet some verses do suggest it. For example, "For thou at first producest for the holy Gods the noblest of all portions, immortality: Thereafter as a gift to men, O Savitar, thou openest existence, life succeeding life" (book 4, 54:2). It is not until the later Vedic texts, for example the Upanishads, that reincarnation is clearly discussed. Interestingly the term for soul (I use the term soul for reasons of simplicity) in Vedic literature is 'atman', whereas the Celtic term for soul is 'anam'. This similarity in language illustrates a unifiying connecton between the two cultures. However I shall discuss language more fully in the second article.
A difference between the two religious orders that is worth noting is that of the inclusion of women in Druidism and the exclusion of women in Brahminism. For history suggests that while Vedic religion and culture were patriarchal, yet Celtic culture and religion, though not matriarchal, was in no way as male dominated as it's Vedic equivalent. The role of women in Celtic culture and religion seems to have been less constrained and defined, in comparison to Vedic society. Not only were there women Druids but from written accounts it is known that women also fought in battle. Diodorus described Celtic women as being "nearly as big and strong as their husbands and as fierce."
Due to the cessation of the Druids a vast wealth of knowledge and wisdom has been lost. As part of an oral tradition, like the Brahmins of old, nothing was ever wrote down, all myths, laws and teachings were held to memory. Consequently with the death of the Druid order was also the death of their knowledge and wisdom. Now lost to history, perhaps the best approach in attempting to regain their lost secrets is to turn eastwards, to the Brahmins and the seers, to the Druids of India.
Gods & Goddesses
Both Celtic and Vedic cultures were closely entwined around a multifarious pantheon. The Celts had a large pantheon of which about 300 to 400 names are known to us today. Though most of these names appear only once, inscribed on alters or votive objects. Many of these deities were likely to be local forms of pan-Celtic deities. This also stands true for the Vedic pantheon, practically every deity known throughout ancient India had a local name alongside other titles which will have been in more widespread use. Often their function also slightly varied from region to region. It is interesting to note that the Celtic term for the Gods is 'Deuos' and the Vedic term is 'Devas', both terms meaning "Shining Ones".
A Celtic God that is well known today and who was also known throughout the Celtic world is Lugh (also known as Lug, Llue, Llew and Lugus). Lugh was the chief Celtic solar deity, called Lugh Lamfota meaning "Lug of the Long Arm" in Ireland or Lleu Llaw Gyffes "Lleu of the Dextrous Hand" in Wales. In Irish tradition Lugh is also known as Samildánach, "Skilled in All the Arts". The two weapons that Lugh is associated with are the rod-sling and a magickal spear. However the spear, unlike the rod-sling, possessed a life of it's own. Not only was it alive but it was driven by a thirst for blood. A thirst which was so strong that the only way in which it could be controlled was by resting the spear head in crushed poppy leaves. Lugh was the Divine leader of the Tuatha De Danann, after having proved his abilities to the king, Nuada of the Silver Hand.
The Celtic Sun God Lugh
Danu in Celtic & Vedic Myth
One of the most striking comparisons to be found between the Celtic and Vedic pantheon is that of a Goddess named Danu and the myths surrounding her (also known in Celtic traditions as Don, Dana and possibly also Anu or Ana). A Goddess named Danu appears both in Celtic and Vedic mythology. She features heavily in Celtic mythology as the Mother Goddess (and a river Goddess). She is one of the most ancient known of all Celtic Goddesses, from whom the hierarchy of Gods received it's name of Tuatha De Danann, "Folk of the Goddess Danu". Whereas in Vedic mythology the Goddess Danu gives birth to the seven Danvanas, the dark ones of the ocean. Surrounding the Goddess Danu in each culture's mythology is a similar tale of battle, each of which I shall briefly relate now.
In the earliest of Celtic documents there is the battle of Moytur fought between the people of the Goddess Danu and the Fomors. The Fomors being Celtic deities of death, darkness and the sea. They were the offspring of "Chaos and Old Night", their name being derived from two Gaelic words meaning "under sea". The Fomers were born from another Mother Goddess called Domnu whose name seems to have signified the abyss or deep sea. The battle between the Fomors and the Tuatha De Danann began at the end of summer and the beginning of winter, on the eve of Samhain (the Celtic festival of the dead). During the course of the bloody battle many were killed, including many of the chieftains. Of all the Fomors the deadliest was Balor, with his eye that could slay by merely looking upon an individual. However during the later stages of the war Lugh shouted on him and before Balor could look upon Lugh, Lugh had thrown a magickal stone at Balor. the stone struck Balor, forcing his deadly eye out through the back of his head. On falling to the ground the eye then gazed on many of the Fomors, killing them, and turning the tide of the battle toward the Tuatha De Danann. Eventually the Fomors were driven away and the people of Danu were victorious.
A similar struggle between opposing forces is to be found in Vedic mythology. This struggle was between the Adityas, the children of the Goddess Aditi, and the Danavas, the children of the Goddess Danu. The Danavas where the antithesis of all that is symbolised by the earth, the sky and the sun. This myth is referred to throughout the Rig Veda and focuses primarily on the God Indra in his victory over the Danavan God Vrtra. In the Rig Veda Vrtra is described as being a limbless dragon and the source of a great drought. When Indra slays him (Vrtra) with his thunder bolt the seven waters are released. It reads in the Rig Veda (Griffith Translation) "He slew the Dragon, then disclosed the waters, and cleft the channels of the mountain torrents." (Rig I.32.1) In the same hymn it later reads "Then humbled was the strength of Vrtra's mother: Indra hath cast his deadly bolt against her. The mother was above, the son under, and like a cow beside her calf lay Danu." (Rig I.32.9)
Danu in the Vedic myth is bondage and restraint and her son Vrtra is the constrictor. Whereas the Goddess Aditi is the Boundless and the Infinite, and Indra by using his tapas, which is represented by his lightening bolt, becomes the "winner of the light". What is to be found here in an esoteric sense is the cycle of life-giving sacrifice (slaying of Vrtra) and the birth of diversification (realeasing of the waters). It is the macrocosmic struggle between light and dark, order and chaos. While on the microcosmic level it is knowledge over ignorance. In the Celtic myth the Goddess Domnu is regarded as being of "Chaos and Old Night", the abyss, from whence came the Fomors the deities of the dark waters who were conquered by Lug, the Celtic Sun God, and the Tuatha De Danann. Again it is the light conquering the darkness. The two myths are fundamentally the same, both tell of the primordial waters, that undifferentiated state of being before the time of creation, and light emerging in triumph over darkness to allow life to flow. This theme seems to be repeated in a rather abstract creation hymn in the Rig Veda, "Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscrimated chaos. All that existed then was void and formless: by the great power of Warmth was born that unit" (X.129).
However the Celtic version of the Indra and Vrtra myth is highly anthropomorphic, far more than that of the Vedic version. This is common in myths that have spread from culture to culture over vast time periods. The original myth is often much more abstract than a version of the same myth to be found in another culture hundreds or even thousands of years later. This then suggests that if these are the same myth the Celtic version is secondary to the primary Vedic version. Further suggesting that the strong possiblity exists of Celtic religion have originated out of India. Yet much of the anthropomorphism may be due to a Christian influence which may have, as with much of Celtic myths and literature, altered them accordingly towards their own perceptions, turning Gods into mortal men.
There exists another myth that holds a similarity to Vrtra. This Celtic myth is about a race of Gods before the people of Danu called the Partholons, who also fought with the Fomors. The Partholons fought against a Fomor surnamed Cichol (or Cenchos) the Footless. It is with Cichol that comparisons with Vrtra have been drawn because of them both being of fantastic proportions and having a "Footless and handless" (RG 1, 32:7) serpent/dragon appearance.
Yet what remains unclear in exploring the Danu myths is the Goddess Danu Herself. Between the two myths Danu appears to represent both light and darkness. In the Vedic myth Danu is the mother of darkness, representative of the state of unmanifest being or She may be the mother of the forces of maya. Here Danu is the equivalent of Domnu is the Celtic myth. Whereas in the Celtic version Danu is the opposite, She is the mother of those who symbolise all that is light and lawful, the equivalent of the Vedic Aditi. This confusion surrounding Danu may be the result of migrating Vedic people out of India, travelling westward towards Europe. As with Celtic literature, Vedic literature tells of many disputes between the various peoples of ancient India. Therefore the possibility exists that the contrasting Danus are the result of a dispute between the some of the Vedic groups, or possibly a religious schism within Vedic culture. Some of these groups may have migrated westwards, taking with them their particular version of Vedic religion. Which although may contain some differences, is never-the-less fundamentally identical to the rest of early Vedic religion. Also as trade routes became more widely used cultural (including religious) boundaries became less defined, resulting in a degree of cultural fusion. This also would help to account for the spread of Vedic beliefs and deities, yet at the same time may help explain the Danu dichotomy.
Successful comparisons may also be drawn between Lug and Indra. This is partially made possible by Indra, in addition to his typical associations of rain, thunder and lightning, also having strong solar associations in the Rig Veda. Throughout the Rig Veda there are many hymns to Indra (more than any other God or Goddess) and many of these contain references that associate Indra with the Sun and light. Another parallel between Lug and Indra is that they were both not the original leaders of their respective groups. Lug was given the position of leader of the Tuatha De Danann for thirteen days by Nuada of the Silver Hand. Indra only became the chief of the Vedic Gods and the people's favourite after he had defeated Vrtra. Indra has also been connected with the myth of Tain Bo Cuailgne. Here Indra's symbolic animal representation, the bull, is compared with the Celtic bull of Quelgny. Again what is found is a solar association in both Celtic and Vedic myth.
Contemporary image of Indra
Image source - Mirror of India-
Places of Worship
Some of the most auspicious places of worship for the Celtic and Vedic peoples were rivers. As already mentioned the Celtic Goddess Danu is particularly associated with rivers, she was the "divine waters" falling from heaven. From these waters the great Celtic river, once known as Danuvius, presently known as the Danube, was created. Many rivers in Europe still owe their current name to their associations with the Goddess Danu, such as the Rhone. In both Celtic and Vedic cultures offerings were often placed in rivers and those of the Celts were especially elaborate. The Celts would often offer much of their riches and treasures, sometimes approximately 25% of a tribe's economy would be given to the Gods at any one time.
In the falling of the Danu river we find a parallel to the an India Goddess and the most holy of rivers in India today, the Ganges. In Puranic mythology the Goddess Ganga's fall to earth was broken by the matted locks of Shiva (known as Rudra in the Vedas), who then released her to fall on the earth. The river which is venerated in the Rig Veda is that of the Sarasvati. Like Danu and Ganga, Sarasvati is the name of a Goddess, as well as a river. However the Sarasvati river is thought to have dried up and it is from that time the Ganges has fulfilled her river role.
Some astounding ancient structures to be found in the Eurpoean lands of the Celts and in India are those of Dolmens. A dolmen is a shallow chamber that is composed of tall vertical upright stones, forming the walls, and a horizontal stone resting across the top to form a roof. Similar to what is found at Stonehenge, though on a much smaller scale. A feature found in some dolmens in both Europe and India is a small single hole in the back of these stone chambers. What the purpose of these small holes is remains unknown, as does the purpose of the dolmens. Though most interpretations link these holes either with birth or death. Most Celtic researchers seem to agree that these structures were created by a Megalithic people prior to Celtic culture, about whom little is known for certain. Is it possible that these Megalithic people had contact with Indian culture long before the Celts and is this why these constructions are to be found in both eastern and western lands?
Stonehenge - A lost Vedic connection? >
Another of the sacred dwellings was that of specific areas of woods and groves. According to Tacitus the "Woods and groves are the sacred depositories; and the spot being consecrated to those pious uses, they give to that sacred recess the name of the divinity that fills the place, which is never profaned by the steps of man. The gloom fills every mind with awe; revered at a distance and never seen but with the eye of contemplation." Similarly there are many Indian tales of Brahmans and holy men who lived in forests of which some were especially sacred spaces (see inf. on the Sleshmantaka Forest in 'The Horned God in India & Europe' article). A selection of Vedic texts written after the four main Samhitas (the Rig, Sama, Yajur and Artharva Vedas) are the Aranyakas, meaning 'forest treatise'. Indicating that these were composed in the reclusive depths of the forests.
Celtic & Vedic Fairies
Celtic stories are well known for their fairy folk, the little people who inhabit trees and hills. Sometimes they were the source of mischief or misfortune, other times the were advantageous and benevolent. The stories tell us that they delight in music and loved to dance. The Celtic fairies (also called Sidhes) often blended in myth with the Gods and like the Gods the fairies knew magick, fought wars and married amongst themselves.
In Vedic culture fairies are called yaksas. This is the collective name of the mysterious little Godlings or sprites that inhabit the fields, forests and jungles. Like Celtic fairies the yaksas could be either beneficent or malignant. They were offered propitiation which was meant to keep them in good relations with the village folk. The yaksas seem to have been vegetal Godlings of Indian rural communities, stretching as far back as pre-Vedic times. Although they were rather ignored in the scriptures there are references to them in the Artharva Veda. The yaksas are asked to give freedom from distress (book 11, 6:10) and they are also spoke of in a passage about creation (book 10, 7:38). The yaksas are also referred to in the Artharva Veda as 'itarajanah', meaning the 'other folk'. At some time these Indian fairy folk must have been widespread in Vedic folklore, evident from their spread into Jain and Buddhist mythology. However much folklore has been lost on the yaksas, either it has been absorbed into sectarian deities or suppressed in later Vedic times. Yet some yaksas remain represented in shrines throughout India, an example of which is the yaksas Purnabhadra near Campa, which is described in the Aupaptika Sutra. Situated in a grove underneath an asoka tree is a black, octagonal altar. Carved into the side of this altar were figures of men, bulls, horses, birds, wolves and snakes, perhaps illustrating some myth or legend.
Supposedly the favourite of the yaksas' locations is in a rural village's sacred tree. Here they would be safe from harms way and it was believed that having the yaksas there was prosperous for the village. Offerings and tiny gifts would be laid at the trunk of the tree, while flower garlands would be hung from the branches. There was also a fertility association with the yaksas in the sacred tree. As were there also associations of treasure buried at the tree roots, again like some of the Celtic fairies.
In the next article on the Celtic Vedic connection other areas, such as ways of worship, language, and cosmology, will be explored.
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