Runy – something for polish-speaking users. It’s not as good as the upper site, but it can turn out that it’s also useful.
King (a ruler)
The position of the ruler (king, jarl, konung, knjaz, vladyka etc.) was very different. It depends of time and concrete tribe(s). There were even societies where there was no ruler (like for example the confederation of slavic Lutici tribes). In the contrast there were also very powerful kings, who ruled vast lands (e.g. russian Kjaz). So I will focus here only on those smaller, local chieftains – as in pagan reality it was more natural to have such rulers than some great kings.
Depends on times, once ruler was more powerful and once common gathering was the mightest power center. The only thing is known for sure – there was never pure democracy in such societies. The thing was a tool in the hands of an elite (including chieftain). The free people could only accept or reject proposals of nobles. Of course people could influence noblemen to take care of some things, but still the noble ones were those who presented the case on the thing.
In ancient times the king was someone who represented tribe in the outside. That means that he had to be as perfect as possible – because in some way if the king had flaws also society had them. The most rigorous were celtic people. In those societies if the king was hurted in the battle he automatically looses his title. It was a kind of magic, as king was also becoming an half-god after his death. He was worshipped as a hero – a personification of tribe’s might.
OK, but let’s say that you live in a pagan society and you desire to be a king? First of all, you have to be chosen by a thing or in a divination. The latter way is more charachteristic for celtic tribes, were the layer of druids had been very influencial in politics. But both methods had a common goal – to choose somebody who is a give warrior. The main function of rulers was to lead an army to the battles. The rest of the power was supposed to be in the hands of the thing. And that’s why the personal skills of the king were important. If he wanted to be powerful – he had to gain a favor of his army. Because army was constructed from free people – the same free people who were voting on common and local gatherings.
OK, you’re a king now. You have won many battles, and you have a big authority amongs people. What’s our next step? Of course you want to convince people that your son should take a reign after you. Because after a death of one king the new one was always chosen by a thing. But if you change it, your dynasty can gradually gain more and more power. Eventually a thing could become only an representative gathering – without any real power. It was not easy though, because the dynasty had to be not only skilled warriors, but also they were supposed to be in good relationships with the noblemen. It was difficult especially when those both social layers were divided by fighting for their own buisness and rights.
Nobility and free people
To see what a difference was between ordinary free people and the nobility we need to study the roots of those division. At the beginning the elite was built up from people who were brave enough. The people who were a good leaders or tradesmen eventually got big assets, and what’s important a land. Many between peasents (“ordinary” free people) also had a land, or even servants – yet their property or status hadn’t been big enough to count in the society. So as we can see those two layers were very unstable – if you was good enough and had some luck, you could become one of those mighties ones. It may be strange for people who associate only knights with the military, but we must remember that in fact every free man was supposed to fight in defence of his land. Moreover – because noblemen were expected to give much harder effort during a war sometimes it was more profitable to be an “ordinary” freeman! (e.g. in the times of Charlemagne, in purely frankish areas, when the nobility had to serve in wars for many years unlike the rest of the society).
About mentioned luck – pagan people (and people in general, even very long time after a “baptism” of a tribe) believed that if you are wealthy and you are good in the battle – than the gods are on your side. That’s why very often “lower” situated people were agreeing with ideas presented on the things with no objection – because they believed that talented elite, who are supported by gods will make best decision for the whole society.
Nobility, beside their obedience in society, had also another privileges bounded with a law. E.g. they were taking bigger compensation for killed relatives, grievances etc. Usually they were taking two or three times more “money” (or wealther) than a usual person. Later it changed – the christian kings, who wanted to protect their officials or gain a hearing from the nobility where raising these amounts. Also during a trial their vote was two or three times more important than a voice of “regular” men.
With noble blood were bounded also noble duties. The most important was to defend a tribe, but not only. Keeping a peace in society and such things were also important. If a noble men failed, than he was the only person who got punished. Also if he broke a law, he was paying more – because he was expected to be more ideal than other free people. The nobility was expected to be an example and inspiracy for the other tribesmen – and not a tool of tyranny in the hand of the king, like it became often in the christian times.
Written by Vladyka in the year 2013.
First of all a note: by the term “ancient democracy” I understand assemblies that were taking places in Europe beside greek and roman cultures. Here I will focus only on slavic veches and germanic things.
Somebody can ask why people were so lawful back then, but it’s not a matter of being lawful or not. This is a matter of surviving – if community couldn’t enforce a law, it was divided. If it was divided – it was weak. If it was weak it was quickly dominated by the other community. So people had to cooperate for their own good.
A good example of how much those assemblies were strong can be shown by a concrete situation. There is a year 804, when frankish king Charlemagne eventually crushed the saxon tribes and forced them to convert into christianity (under his reign). One of his firsts orders were enforcing of his jurisdiction. It means that a local communities were supposed to be judged by his officials, and not by local assemblies. After a couple of years he surprisingly discovered that it wasn’t the best decision. His officials weren’t able to enforce royal law in every small community, due to the fact that their military capabilities weren’t sufficient (and they were already very expensive). Charlemagne was forced to abandon this activity. He decided that his officials will represent him only on bigger popular assemblies (where they were effective).
Althought I call this assemblies “ancient democracy” it’s very far from what modern democracy is, or even was in ancient Athenes. There were two kinds of assemblies – local (called in old scandinavian “thing”, and in old slavic “veche”) where different cases of single or few communities were being judged – and popular (“althing”), on which were being judged cases of a whole tribe, or even tribal federation.
Everyone who was a free man and were living in particular community could take a part in thing. Such gatherings were organized in sacred places – in slavic case it was always a sacred grove. A slavic term of such place – “gai” – is derived from an old slavic verb “gaiti” (“to inclose”). So a meeting place was a fenced area. Moreover it was devoted to a concrete god of law – in Scandinavia it was e.g. Thor, in Sclavia propably Perun or Svarog. It wasn’t a sign that all the new resolutions were blessed by gods – it was a sign that everyone taking part in assembly was obligated before gods that he won’t break thing’s decision (or he will be punished by gods and humans for his disloyalty).
The assembly were always beggining by prayers to gods. Later the men who was a law-speaker – a person who was able to recite all the traditional laws – were supposed to do it. After that the thing were able to make new decisions – choose a new chief, declare war to somebody etc.
Unlike in greek democracy where everybody could make a public speech, in slavic and germanic assemblies the only ones who were speaking had been nobles (and later local rulers). They were discussing all the important things before the thing started, and later announcing them to other free people (peasants). Freeman could reject them, or accept by hitting with their spears (or less often other weapons) into their shields as a sign of appreciation. The decision had to be taken unanimously. If anybody was opposing it he was firstly convinced to change his mind. If even after this he didn’t want to appreciate the resolution he was beaten by sticks.
Later anybody who has some compliment could represent his case to thing. The decision was taken again by all of freeman, but it had to be consistent with local law. Both of sides – accused and accusing were supported by their relatives. That’s why a kin was so important back then – without influencial kinsman nobody was able to win a case.
Relatives weren’t saying that somebody is wrong or not – they were just making a guarantee that their akin men is not guilty. If a thing decided that he was, all people related with accused had to pay a part of his chastisement. If somebody were banished from a community their duty was to protect him.
Banishing from a community was the worst punishment for people back then. That meant that outlaw hadn’t any tribe – and so he hadn’t any laws. Anybody could kill him and take or destroy his property without any consequences. The tribe, who normally had to defend such a man, could simply don’t care about him. Without a tribe an outlaw was in eyes of people nobody.
That’s how things and veches worked.
First of all a genius work of polish historian – Karol Modzelewski’s ” Barbarian Europe” (pol. “Barbarzyńska Europa”). It’s a really perfect and complex book about this topic.
You can always read these and other related arts on Wikipedia (which are quite good):
This article contains only basic information about celtic pagan traditions. If you want to learn more – read some books, or visit websites that I recommend you at the end of this text.
This topic is really long and hard to present. So if you have good knowledge about it, and you will see some mistakes – simply write to me.
Sources and historical background
The ancient Celts settled vast lands from Ireland and Britain on the north, to northern Italy, Spain and Balcans on the south. They were living in what is now called France on the west, and in part of Czech Republic on the east, and even in Minor Asia (being known there as “Galats”). They were great warriors and craftsman. But that was in VII-III B.C. In following years, they were slowly conquered by Romans, Germanic and Daco-Thracian tribes. The only free celtic lands were still lying in modern Scotland (settled by Picts), Wales and Ireland.
Celtic pagans haven’t written themselves about their beliefs. The tradition existed in word of mouth, being guarded and cultivated by druids – a rank of priests, medicals, historians, astronomers, philosophers and scientists. I will write about them in other article.
Our main sources are texts of celtic neighbors – Romans and Greeks. The second part of texts are manuscripts of Christian monks, who were recording old celtic tales. They were using a names of celtic deities and heroes, and were writing about old festivals, but in Christian vain.
Also our sources are archeology (especially useful for Gallia’s territory), linguistic, folklore and comparative mythology.
First of difficulties is that under roman occupation invaders tried to Romanize specific gods and goddesses. Also, when they were writing about celtic pantheon they were using Roman names (as an equivalent). Very often ancient classics weren’t writing about gods, that were popular on many monuments and in inscriptions.
In different part of Gallia, in Ireland and Britain names of deities were generally different. Also many deities don’t have their equivalent in other regions. Because of that, I will write only about most popular gods and goddesses. I will not write about fomoraig generation of Ireland – that is a topic for other text.
First name is always gaulish:
Teutates (bryt. Totatis, Tutatis) – is a central character in celtic pantheon. His name means all people. He’s a patron and a guardian of a tribe. He is also a god of war. Romans were comparing him to Mercury and Mars.
Lugus (irl. Lugh, bryt. Llud Llaw Ereint or Llew, Lleu) – is a god-king, and his name means flashing light. Was worshipped in every region of celtic world. He is associated with sun and warm light.
A Lugnasad festival is especially bounded with this god.
His attribute is spear.
Taranis (bryt. Taran) – or Sucellos, a god of thunder and sky, worshipped in Gallia, Britain and Ireland. His attributes are hammer, an oak and a wheel, and his name means basically Thunder or Lord of Thunder.He is similar to other thunder gods of Europe – germanic Donar/Thor, roman Jupiter, greek Zeus, slavic Perun and Baltic Perkunas.
Belenos (bryt. Beli) – a solar god, by Romans identified with Apollo. He is bounded with healing forces and life-giving power of sun.
Bounded with Beltaine and Lugnasad festivals.
Goibniu (irl. Goibniu, bryt. Govannon) – is a god-blacksmith, patron of crafts and work.
Ogmios (irl. Ogma) – is a god of eloquence and science. He was identified with Hercules, but his strength is a power of speech, not a muscle.
He is also bounded with underworld.
Cernunnos – a god with a horns of a deer, bounded with wild nature and magic.
Mothers – three goddesses, patron of wealth, fertility and maternity. Their attributes are basket of apples, baby and/or horn of plenty.
Epona – a goddess with features of mothers. She is also a goddess of death, fallen in battle and underworld.
Their attributes, beside Mothers’ ones, is also a horse.
She was known in ancient world under many names (e.g. Rosmerta).
She is quite similar to irish goddess Danu and british Riannon.
Brigantia (bryt. Brigantia, irl. Brigid) – is a goddess of poetry, healing, smith’s work. She is patron of higher dimension – as high hills, so as also high intelligence, perfection etc. By Romans she was described as Minerva.
Bodua/Catabodua (irl. Badb, also known as Morrigan) – goddess of war. She is taking fallen warriors souls to the Underworld. Her attribute is a crow.
The Irish goddess Morrigan is sometimes a name for a trio of other goddess (bounded with war) – Badb, Macha and Nemain).
31st October / 1st November – Samhain – the first day of celtic calendar. It is starting “darker” part of a year, ending a time of harvest and being a festival of spirits, forefathers and unborn children.
1st February – Imbolc – bounded mainly with goddess Brigid, it is a holyday of purification by fire and water.
30th April / 1st May – Beltaine – a holyday starting a part of “light”year. Devoted mainly to the god Belenos, and bounded with fire.
1st August – Lugnasad – a day of devoted mainly to god Lugh, and also Belenos. Bounded with a beginning of harvest, it is also a day of love and happiness.
Also, worth to check:
J. de Vries – Celtic Religion
p. MacCana – Celtic Mythology
Th. F. O’Rahilly – Early Irish History and Mythology
M.L. Sjeostedt – Gods and Heroes of the Celts
J. Wood – The Celts: Life, Myth and Art
And lots of more – english literature about Celts is huge.
Also try to read source text and legends – e.g. Mabinogion or De Bello Gallico by Ceaser.
Books for polish-speaking people:
J. Gąssowski – Mitologia Celtów
A. Bartnik – Zarys Wierzeń Plemion Celtyckich
Celtowie (z serii Mitologie Świata)
+ tłumaczenia zagranicznych książek (a sporo ich jest).