The Celts were an ethnic group living to the far west of Greece during the Iron Age. They lived in France, Britain, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal. Famous for their ferocity in warfare, they did not speak Greek or really have much to do with Greece until they started migrating east.
However, is it possible that the Celts somehow worshipped some Greek gods? It may seem like a bizarre idea, but there is some ancient evidence for this.
Identifying Barbarian Gods as Classical Gods
One issue that complicates this subject is that the Greeks and Romans often equated their classical gods with the gods of ‘barbarian’ nations. For example, the war god of the Norse was called Tyr. When the Romans spoke about the Norse god of war, they used the name ‘Mars.’ They did this because Mars was the Roman god of war.
In reality, the Norse god Tyr and the Roman god Mars are completely unrelated. They do not share an origin in any way. Yet, because they were both war gods, the Romans simply used the name of their own war god to refer to the Norse one. It was not uncommon for the Greeks to follow this same practice.
Greek and Roman records often refer to the gods of the Celts by Greek names. However, because of this, it is often difficult to tell whether or not those Greek or Romans names were actually those used by the Celts themselves for their gods. Did the Celts worship any Greek gods? Or, rather, did Greek writers merely refer to Celtic gods with the names of their own gods?
Records of the Celts Worshipping Greek Gods
There is at least one record which appears to describe an actual case of the Celts worshipping a Greek god. This is found in the writings of Diodorus Siculus. He lived in the first century BCE. However, in one part of his writings, he described a report from a much earlier Greek traveler. This was Hecataeus of Abdera, who lived in the fourth century BCE.
According to Hecataeus, there was an island beyond the land of the Celts (meaning Gaul, or France). It was at least as big as Sicily. This is widely understood to be a reference to Britain. In this account, it was called Hyperborea. This place name was usually applied to the region beyond Scythia, but it was flexible and could sometimes be used for other northern locations.
In this account, Hecataeus explains that the people of this island worshipped Apollo as their chief god. Of course, this could be just another example of the Greeks applying the names of their own gods onto similar barbarian ones. Nonetheless, a closer examination of this account indicates that it really does refer to the Greek god Apollo.
Apollo Worshipped in Britain
In this account of ancient Britain, Hecataeus explains why the inhabitants worshipped Apollo as their chief god. He says they believed that Leto was born on the island. Leto was the mother of Apollo from Greek mythology.
The fact that this account specifically refers to goddess Leto as well as god Apollo is interesting. It lends credence to the idea that it really does refer to figures from Greek mythology.
Furthermore, the account mentions that the kings of a certain city on this island called themselves Boreadae. They had that name because they were allegedly descendants of Boreas. Boreas was the god of the north wind in Greek mythology. It should be noted that this account specifically says these kings were ‘called’ Boreadae. Therefore, this does not appear to be an instance of the Greeks using their own term for something which had a different name to the Celts.
Rather, it appears that the Celts of Britain really did use the term ‘Boreadae.’ At least, that is what the record claims. Hence, there was an awareness of Greek mythology. The reference to Apollo specifically in conjunction with Leto supports this conclusion.
What Did the Celts Call Apollo?
There is other evidence the Celts had an awareness of Greek mythology. But if they really did worship Apollo, and they did refer to him as such, then where is the evidence for the use of that name in Celtic lands?
In southwest Gaul, there are inscriptions dedicated to a god called ‘Abellio.’ This name also appears as ‘Abelio’ and ‘Abelionni.’ Notice the similarity to the name ‘Apollo.’ Interestingly, the name of Apollo sometimes appears as ‘Apello’ in ancient Italy, and also as ‘Abelio’ on ancient Crete. The presence of an ‘n’ on the end of the name of the Celtic god Abellio in one form (‘Abelionni’) also supports a connection. This is because the name of Apollo was also sometimes written as ‘Apollon.’
Therefore, it may well be that the god of the Celts named Abellio came from the Greek god Apollo. However, the god Abellio is solely found in the southwest region of Gaul. How could this explain the fact that Hecataeus said that Apollo was the chief god of the Celts of Britain?
The Celtic God Belenus and the Greek God Apollo
The answer to this question appears to be that the Celts of Britain (and other Celtic regions) worshipped Abellio under a slightly different name. Consider again the forms ‘Abelio’ and ‘Abelionni.’ Aside from the presence of the initial ‘A,’ these are quite identical to the recorded names of a very prominent Celtic god: Belenus.
Belenus appears in various sources with such diverse spellings as ‘Belis’ and ‘Belinus’ amongt other variations. We can compare ‘Abelio’ (and the Cretan spelling of Apollo, ‘Abelios’) with ‘Belis’. We can also compare ‘Abelionni’ with ‘Belinus.’
Interestingly, the connection between the god of the Celts named Belenus and the Greek god Apollo is actually confirmed by ancient writings and inscriptions. Certain inscriptions show that the Celts worshipped Belenus as ‘Apollo Belenus.’ Herodian, a Roman historian from about 200 CE, explained that the inhabitants of a particular area referred to Belenus by the name of ‘Belis.’ In this context, he explicitly notes that Belenus was the same as Apollo.
Julius Caesar also referred to Apollo as one of the chief gods of the Celts, and scholars widely believe that he was referring to Belenus.
How the Celts Came to Worship Greek Gods
Much like the Greek god Apollo, the Celts associated their god Belenus with the sun, healing, and horses. Many sun gods from other cultures were not connected with healing or with horses. Likewise, many healing gods were not connected with horses.
Therefore, the combination of these three things as one deity strongly supports the idea that the worship of Belenus really did come from Apollo. The god in southwest Gaul, Abellio, seems to preserve the intermediary form between the name of the Greek god and Belenus, the god of the Celts.
However, how could the Celts have worshipped a Greek god? Well, the answer appears to lie in the emergence of the La Tène culture. This started to emerge in around 500 BCE. This was a hundred years after the Greeks established their colony of Massalia. It was also the time when the Etruscans, who largely worshipped the Greek gods, began trading with the Celts.
It may well be that the worship of some Greek gods, such as Apollo in particular, spread to the lands of the Celts during this period. Archaeological evidence shows that it was a period of significant contact between the Celts and Greek culture. This undoubtedly included the worship of the Greek gods.