Gods of the Auvergne

By Patou Soult

Pecold/Shutterstock

A land of gods and sacred hilltops: this is the Auvergne. The Puy de Dôme, Gaulish land of extinct volcanoes was once fertile soil for nature divinities. The Auvergne was full of sanctuaries, mysterious woods, limpid streams and deep lakes, and its people, the Arverni, had a rich pantheon of gods, from the earlier native Chthonian creed to more recent Celtic deities. The Gauls inherited beliefs from neolithic natives around 300BCE, and in 1974, digs in Chilhac revealed the presence of early hominids dating back two million years.

The natural frontiers of Auvergne afford it regional and religious continuity. The gods of the early inhabitants reflected the natural order, linking ecological equilibrium with a dual symbolic function and taking animal forms: bird, goat, wolf, fish. The double function represented antinomic aspects of behaviour, as opposed to dialectic or logical, and each god was endowed with both lightness and dark. Some gods embodied archetypal facets of life. Form varied with location, but they were always indigenous species.

With the Gaulish invasions of Auvergne (300BCE), gods multiplied in the great forests, among the deformed stumps that terrified Vercingetorix’s contemporaries. Centuries later, the oak woods of the Cantal would grimace at the newly-Christianised natives. With the Indo-European Celtic arrival, old gods were joined by new gods with human attributes, forming one of the most populous pantheons of western Europe.

More resilient Gaulish divinities bathed in springs and sources, and given their popularity after 20 centuries, one wonders why they aren’t great gods or saints today. In Gamay, two water divinities can still be seen in the 21st century and native habits have not changed; merely the gods’ names: Taragnat and Vouroux; still offered silver and bronze.

During the Middle Ages, Mont Dore was a natural temple and Vichy’s sulphurous waters were home to healing divinities. Of the gods, those presiding over springs were mostly female and benevolent.

The ancient Gauls revered large rivers, and French river names still reflect ancient gods. Lake Gevaudan hosted a three-day festival, with libations, offerings and ex votos (some read: “V.S.L.M: Votum Solvit Libens Merito/ “he carried his wish, as it should be”). Locals danced and conjured rain, a custom still practiced in the early 20th century, in July.

Human imagery

The Gauls did not depict their gods in human form, preferring megalithic stones, trees and symbolic markings. After the Roman invasions, they introduced human imagery, albeit mixed with zoomorphic attributes. They retained their grossly-sculpted wooden statues and when they used Roman stone masonry, they added Gaulish symbols – boars, neck rings, long hair, the protecting eye on the torso.

The supreme divinity of the Arverni was Dumias, or Arvernus, in the Puy de Dôme, whose wide visibility ensured a common cult among separate tribes. Their devotion to Gaulish gods like Cernunnos, Taranis, Teutates and Esus did not mean local ones languished: the genii loci became local avatars of greater divinities. After Dumias came the war god Teutates, a variant of Toutatis. Father of the warrior Celtic nations, humans were sacrificed to him, mostly by drowning. Modern archeology has little to say about Toutatis, but five graffitis in Beauclair attest to his popularity. Beauclair has been identified via aerial archeology as a 30-hectare Arverni sanctuary, complete with amphitheatre, temple and thermal spa.

Belenos was a diurnal deity who complemented Lug and was the god of meditative medicine. Also known as the god of harmony, inventions and reasoning, he was celebrated on May 1st, marking the passage from the dark to light. Maponus, also revered by British Celts, was assimilated with Apollo after the Romanisation of France, because of his link with youth. He is the son of Dagda (Celtic god of magic and wisdom). Sucellus was the hammer god, often represented as an old man accompanied by oak barrels. He is another god of the wilderness and wine and may have been partially assimilated with the god of woods Silvanus during the Romanisation of Gaul.

The Gaulish pantheon would not be complete without Cernunnos: the horned god, worshipped throughout Western Europe. His iconography is varied (around 60 representations) but the horns are always present and in ancient Gaul he is the god of carnal passion, animals and forests. Earlier forms were zoomorphic, but with Romanisation, his depictions became anthropomorphic. To the Arverni, Cernunnos was a solar god who stood at the opposite of the Earth-mother. Cernunnos is the enemy of serpents, an attribute later borrowed by the Christians. Symbolically, he is the ancestor of Dionysus/Bacchus and he is revered today by those who follow the old religion.

The feminine

Goddesses meanwhile, were equal with gods. Siannus was the goddess of the Mont-Dore (today a famous thermal spa) and after Caesar’s conquest, was assimilated with Minerva because of her association with war, wisdom, strategy and intelligence. Arduinna is a nature goddess, mistress of  forests, hunting and primeval instincts. As a Mother moon goddess of animals and plants, she rides a boar (symbol of justice) and carries a sword and quiver, like Freya or Artemis. In Paleolithic Europe from the 7th to the 3rd millennia, the sow represented the pregnant goddess. Pork fat was used in agrarian ritual and effigies of sows suggest widespread cult practices. The boar was linked to death, killer of the male vegetation god, because it wreaked devastation in the fields. Arduinna gave her name to the region of the Ardennes and her cult lasted until 565CE.

Epona rode a white mare (white horses were rare and venerated, as seen today on the chalk hills of Britain). She is the protector of those who deal with horses (during his last stand against the Roman armies, Vercingetorix sent his horses behind the lines rather than risk their slaughter, facing his enemies on foot). Redvane Fox mentions that: “It was with the rebirth of interest in the old religion around the turn of the century and with the reinvention of The Craft following the publication of Gardner’s High Magic’s Aid, the repeal of the Witchcraft laws and the movement towards reincorporating the female into the divine that Epona could truly begin to emerge from the shadows.”

Rosmerta was the most powerful of the Arverni mother-goddesses, carrying a horn of plenty, purse and fruit basket. She provided material prosperity. Damona the cow was the goddess of the sources and she sat alongside the healing gods Borvo, Albius and Moritasgus. Belisama, fire goddess and consort of Belenos, patron of blacksmiths and crafts, was connected to lakes and rivers and celebrated at Imbolc. Often depicted with serpents, she may have been a goddess of wisdom, possibly from the aboriginal Chthonic pantheon. Animism having survived Indo-Europeanisation, many other goddesses were present, often disguised as animals.

The owl, a prominent image from the Neolithic through to the Bronze age, can be seen on Auvergne and Languedoc monoliths. So many amphibian goddesses abound in this Celtic pantheon that to this day, Auvergne peasants believe the toad to be harbinger of pregnancy. Engraved creatures with frog legs and human ribcages can be seen in caves from the Auvergne to the Tarn and Garonne (Fontales, les Trois Freres, Laugerie-Basse). Snake goddesses, another Chthonic inheritance, represented the old archetypes of streams and lakes. Engraved snake heads (3,000 BCE) on stone steles associate the snake symbol with life emerging from the waters. These anthropomorphic deities squat or sit, crowned with a snake. The worship of the snake goddess didn’t dissipate, but was absorbed into the domestic cults of the invading Celts. Today, widespread in European folktales are beliefs that snakes’ crowns enable them to see hidden treasures and understand the language of animals.

Places and offerings

Rosmerta and other Mother-goddesses were often affectionately exhibited inside Gaulish houses, in  a subterranean sanctuary or a wall recess, the ‘lalaire’. The Gauls honoured Lares familiares and Penates (1) (family gods, protectors of the house, though originally the Lar familiaris would have been worshipped from the rural cult of Compita, in which he was guardian of the land surrounding the house as Agri custodies). Yet among these private divinities were triads of Mother goddesses: Epona, Venus (2), Ceres, as well as domestic genii (boars, rams and the dog as guardians of the home) and the main Gaulish gods.

These private oratories were situated in cellars, the foundation of the house where the harvest was kept, leading many archeologists to conclude that the Gauls practiced a private religion in their sanctuary caves, as well as worshipping a communal pantheon. The contents of one Lalaire were found by archeologist Joël Le Gall in Argentomagus, showing two figures, a phallus and a round table. Some speculate that the figures are aspects of Cernunnos, the phallus representing fertility. Some lalaires in poorer homes were painted on the walls, others made of wood. The Gauls, adding potency to their protection spells, decorated their cauldrons with family guardians, often a ram’s head or boar.

Just as in later private chapels, offerings were made to the deity(ies) of the Lalaire; meat, herbs, honey cakes, incense or drinks. Offerings fall into four categories: those made on moving into the house; at times of marriage, birth, death or acquisition; those representing a tribute and those of a defensive nature. There is no archeological evidence of bloodier offerings during significant dates like solstices and equinoxes, as there would have been among some other Indo-European tribes. What stands out is that the domestic gods receive a portion of the household food.

From Gods to house spirits

These Gaulish beliefs barely changed, due to a lack of major historical upheaval and Christian decrees to to ban them. By the early Middle Ages, the gods were no longer true deities, but Genii Domestici (house spirits), sometimes identified as members of the large family of elves and sprites, as mentioned by Paul Sebillot in French Traditions. Names of the lesser Celtic or Roman dieties overlapped with the new spirits. These entities still ensured the family’s well-being and successful farming, but some became ambiguous, connecting with goblins, elves, and fauns. We find domestic sprites (The ‘Drac’, the ‘Fulet’, the ‘Joculares’) with deceitful characteristics and the Lares mali (evil lares). We also find metamorphosing spirits, like the ‘Sotré’, who can appear as a whirlwind.

These later, restless spirits have an array of names, depending on their locale and the majority of accounts come from clerics distorting matters by using Latin equivalents for local names. Names for the lesser ancient Gaulish dieties overlap with figures of local belief, which hardly makes investigation easier. It is believed that the Arverni’s pantheon numbered in the thousands: possibly 2,300. The Arverni had imposed political hegemony upon Gaul’s tribes, thanks to their privileged geographical position and natural resources. To them, nature was religion; the sky, the rivers, the wind, trees and animals all had living souls.

The religions (for it seems there were many) of the Arverni and other Celtic tribes had strong affinities with Animism and Totemism. Added to this, the Celtic religion was stratified on many levels, from the domestic cult, to rites linked to professions, tribal and regional gods, to the main godheads of entire nations. The names and functions of these gods changed with the regions; added to the Celtic pantheon were earlier Chthonic deities and later Roman ones, a testimony to tolerance and cultural complexity. The common denominator seems to have been a dignified respect for nature.

Today, some of the old gods and goddesses have returned, a sign that we perhaps desperately need their vital ecological wisdom and benevolence.

Notes:

1- Lares domestic divinities, protectors of family and home, found in cellars or atria. Penates is the generic name for all household gods worshipped near the hearth.

2- Anadyomene Venus means rising from the sea. In the celtic tribes of Auvergne, it may be a reference to ancestral links with aphrodite and to the prehistoric festivals of Eleusis and Poseidon. The open shell representing the female vulva, this would perhaps take us to the Neolithic female worshipping era, the Arverni’s ancestral memory.