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Book Review - Pagan Celtic Britain

Pagan Celtic Britain

Dr Anne Ross

ISBN 0-89733-435-3 Academy Press Publishers

Originally published in 1967, Pagan Celtic Britain is one of the most important studies on the subject, despite the tendancy in some circles of viewing the work as out-dated. Ross herself says that her work is limited by the scarse material, iconographical and vernacular, from which this literary reconstruction is drawn. Despite this, I think that Ross provides an accurate insight into the pre-Roman and pre-Christian beliefs and religious practises that existed in the north of Britain.

Sancturies, Temples and Cult Sites
This Chapter deals with the archaeological evidence, from both Pre-Roman and Romano-Celtic sites. Sites linked to water are discussed such as the temple at Lydney and Llyn Cerrig Bach. Her work on the sites follows the excellent work done in the field by Professor Stuart Piggott.

The Cult of the Head
The Cult of the Head describes its use in iconography and folklore. The head was seen as the seat of the soul, it is seen in countless carvings and in various mythological tales. Reverence for the head is also seen in the folklore pertaining to sacred wells.

The Horned God in Britain
Sometimes linked to (C)ernunnos, sometimes linked to Mars, Mercury or Silvanus in the interpretato Romano. This section deals mainly with the iconography of the various cults of horned deities in Northern Britain.

The Warrior God in Britain
The Warrior God in Britain is a difficult subject to cover, particularly during the Roman period, as the interpreto Romano would have been biased towards the warrior aspects of deities, whilst in a highly volatile militarized area. Ross lists the myriad of deities in this group including Camulos, Nodens, Segomo, Cocidius and Belatucadros and shows how, no matter what their 'main function' all these deities have strong martial qualities, due, no doubt, to the 'heroic' nature of Celtic Culture.

The Goddesses
Ross shows that the main functions of Goddesses within Celtic Culture - 'Mother' Goddesses, River Goddesses, Goddesses of Sovereignty, protectress, granter of fertility and prosperity.......

Sacred and Magic Birds
Using iconography and mythological sources Ross shows how important birds were to the Celts. The beliefs attached to Swans, Ravens, Geese and Cranes are all explained, as well as demonstrating the frequency of bird-forms been used by various Deities.

Divine Animals
Animals feature a great deal in both the myths and iconography and here Ross describes both animals linked to particular Deities and animals venerated in their own right. The work includes the Divine Bull, the boar, the dog, the horse and the stag.

Aspects of Native Cults in North Britain
This Chapter brings the book to a conclusion, as Ross explains how Celtic religion in northern Britain was affected by the Romans, and how aspects of it survived not only the Romans but the coming of Christianity. She describes aspects of the cults of Mabon, Belatucadros and other 'northern' Gods to provide us with an insight into Pre-Christian Celtic religion.  

Reviewed by J.Craig Melia - 1999

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