Across cultures throughout history, people have honored their ancestors and heroes, venerating them to the point of looking upon them as deities. Not saying that they all venerate their ancestors to God hood. Most of these religions and spiritualities do not consider it as worship as one would a deity. In this article, we will briefly cover ancestor and hero veneration in a few cultures all while establishing and/or reconstructing Helvetian and Alpine ancestor and hero cultus. Keep in mind that what I am presenting is my own personal practice and perspective.
Human or a God?
Probably the biggest and toughest question to answer on this topic. A quick Wikipedia search tells us, “Ancestor reverence is not the same as the worship of a deity or deities” and this is accurate but there’s more to it than that. History has shown us that people have been deified. One example I use often is Guan Yu in Chinese Taoism but there is also Ghengis Khan for the Mongols and the tradition of the Egyptian Pharoahs being ascended into divine status which is similar to Mesoamerican cultures with distinct differences. These various examples show us that those who were very important, very famous, very extraordinary were often elevated into Gods after death.
Most common was the veneration of kings and emporers. Outside of Europe, Royal bloodlines were considered divine and ordained by the Gods with mythological origins to their nations and their families. For one to even try to usurp a kingdom, they would have to marry into the bloodline to claim legitimacy. Europe wasn’t that different. Most of the time, those who claimed to be kings usually had to claim to be descended from the Gods. What separates European practices from other places, is that the idea of veneration of a king or hero as a God wasn’t as common, as far as we can tell. Emporers of China, Japan, Egypt, Mesoamerica and others had a long standing practice of veneration of their rulers even prior to their deaths. They were often seen as a living incarnation of the divine.
European traditions would give heroes and kings very high honors and funeral rites but it isn’t known if they would venerate them into worship. One of the earliest accounts of a man becoming a divine is in the myth of Heracles. The demigod went through tremendous tribulations, trials, and pain which was ultimately rewarded upon his death by being elevated as a God of Strength. This is a common theme within PIE cultures, a person of divine heritage could, through great labors and achievements, become worthy of deification. The Greek Heracles and the Roman Hercules bear much similarities to the Gaulish Ogmios. Like His Greco-Roman equivilants, Ogmios wields a club and wears the skin of a lion. However, Ogmios is depicted as aged with chains connecting His tongue to the ears of warriors. This is a representation of His eloquence as His words bind warriors as a leader of men.
This has lead some to think that Ogmios is in fact Heracles. This idea is up to you to determine but what is commonly accepted is that Ogmios is the first Gaul and father to all the tribes. His strength and eloquence are His main facets but Ogmios is also seen as a psychopomp, a guardian and guide of the dead. Although Ogmios is a Dêwoi, this position reflects the belief that ancestors do not become Gods but rather minor beings and guardian spirits.
Whether or not a person can be deified is controversial in a modern sense, veneration of heroes and ancestors to the level of a protective spirit over the family or tribe is very common and still practiced in various ways. The largest example are the Saints of Catholicism. Most of the Saints were living people but their piety and deeds in the name of Christianity earned them Sainthood. Saints are not on the same level as God but are often prayed to for help, guidance, and protection. Patron Saints are found all over the Chrsitian world and some nations name cities after them. England holds St George as their Saint is one example.
Mary, mother of Christ, is one of the most recognizable of the Saints and is revered across the Christian world. Her image and iconography is almost as prominent as that of Jesus himself and almost as many people pray to her as they do Christ. Speaking of which, the Nazarene himself is also an example of veneration of a living person. Jesus falls into the demigod category which is the most common among ancestor and hero worship. Being descended from a divine being, performing great labors and tasks, and undergoing great hardship mirrors, although vaguely, that of Heracles. The key difference to keep in mind is that Saints are, essentially, cosmic middlemen. We are meant to pray to them then they go to God on our behalf.
To answer the big question from the beginning, in most western practices from either modern times or antiquity, ancestors and heroes are often venerated but only in very specific cases are they revered as deities. PIE cultures did see their ancestors and heroes as powerful spirits that offering could be made to and could be prayed to but full worship was reserved to the Gods.
Next we need to discuss the worship of ancestors. The historical parts have been covered for the most part but there’s more nuance to it. The veneration and worship of ancestors is fairly common, as we saw earlier especially in Asian traditions and religions but the practice is found basically everywhere. For this section we’re going to stay primarily in the modern and European/PIE context.
Prior to the veneration of Catholic Saints, early Europeans looked at their ancestors as guardian spirits who provided luck, safety, guidance, and protection for their families and tribes. Some cultures even held large festivals to honor their ancestors. Most famously is the Gaelic festival of Samhain, more commonly known nowadays as Halloween. One of the major fire festivals, Samhain is a festival to honor the dead and ward away dark spirits that cross over into our world that night. Food offerings were left for the ancestors and lights were lit to help them find their way. Across the way in Cornwall and Wales are other Celtic holidays meant to honor the dead. While the Gaelic had Samhain, the Brythonic people had Kalan Gwav in Cornwall and in Wales, Calan Gaeaf which are very similar to Samhain but unique in their own right.
In Scandanavian culture, ancestors were sacred. Blóts and other rituals were done to honor the dead. The ancestors could protect the household, give strength and luck to their family. To disrespect or mistreat the dead would be catastrophic. The dead could return as a Draugr to punish the living. There are even sagas with plot points where ancestors would aid or curse their descendants. In Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss, or roughly translated, Saga of Bárðr the God/Guardian of Snowfell, the titular character Bárðr aids his son, Gestr, when called upon. During a mission to destroy a Draugr King, which was a constant spiritual battle between Christianity and Paganism amongst Gestr and his party, Gestr is unofficially Christianized and when in a tight apot, calls upon his father who does appear but is unable to help. Out of desperation, Gestr offically commits to Christianity and is able to defeat the Draugr King but Bárðr visits Gestr in a dream the night following his baptism and takes his eyes for allowing himsfel to change his beliefs and lack of character. Gestr dies from these wounds.
Ancestor worship in the Greco-Roman world was in this same mindset as well. Rome and Greece had murals and memorial inscriptions to honor their dead, especially those of the higher class, and like with the Celts and Germans, there was a fear of consequences should the dead be disrespected. Some myths say that shades would rise from the Underworld to torment their family for improper funeral rites. However, also like the Celts and Germans, the spirits of the dead would also protect and come to aid their descendants. Odysseus, Aeneus, and other heroes are famed for traveling to the Underworld and seeking help from the dead. The Greeks are also the main source for another type of cult or cultus, Hero Cultus.
Cult of Heroes
Greek Hero Cults worked in a very similar fashion as ancestral veneration but the Greek people expanded upon this in a number of ways. While most ancestor cultus would, most of the time, be a family member, the Greeks would venerate a named hero with no familial ties. These traditions lead to varying types of hero cults with the “Named Hero” being one of them. Local figures were most common such as Oedipus in Athens, Heracles in Thebes, and the list goes on and on.
The Oikist Cults worshipped the founders of the Greek city-states and Hellenistic colonies. The name “Oikist” comes from a tomb found in Sicily. This type could also be called “Tomb Cults” since observances would take place at the tombs of these figures. Many of these founding men, and women in some cases, have become almost legendary and mythical but this was either a byproduct of the cults or what led to the beginnings of the Oikist Cults. A rather minor variation was the localized Hero Cults which was archeologically less attested in which a smaller village would venerate a local ancestor or hero.
A variation on the Tomb Cultus is the iron age worship at bronze age tombs in Mycenea. These sites are much harder to identify since archeologists have to find the differences between iron age artifacts amoung the bronze age artifacts. These sites show that iron age Greeks venerated and possibly deified the once great Myceneans that dominated the Greek world in their day. There are examples of other minor cults that developed as well but what these hero cults have in common was their political influence.
Hero cults could be of the utmost political importance. When Cleisthenes divided the Athenians into new demes for voting, he consulted Delphi on what heroes he should name each division after. According to Heroditus, the Spartans attributed their conquest of Arcadia to their theft of the bones of Orestes from the Arcadian town of Tegea. Heroes in myth often had close but conflicted relationships with the gods. Thus Heracles’s name means “the glory of Hera”, even though he was tormented all his life by the queen of the gods. This was even truer in their cult appearances. Perhaps the most striking example is the Athenian king Erechtheus, whom Poseidon killed for choosing Athena over him as the city’s patron god. When the Athenians worshiped Erechtheus on the Acropolis, they invoked him as Poseidon Erechtheus. With all this laid out its time to answer the most important question, how does this apply to Gaul?
The Head Cult
As of now, there is no sources stating that the Gauls practiced ancestor or hero cultus. However, there have been carvings of figures believed to be depicting a venerated hero or ancestor like the Glauberg Prince which dates back to the 5th century BCE. But the biggest debate among historians is the theory of the Cult of the Head. We know from many accounts that Gaulish warriors were said to be notorious head hunters on the battlefield, taking the head of fallen enemies and essentially turning them into ornaments for their horses, weapons, or wherever they can hang them as there are accounts of heads dangling from belts. The Celts were masters of fear tactics and psychological warfare. In the early days of Rome, the tribes of Gaul thrived on the fear that Rome held for them.
But this head obsessions seems to go beyond the battlefield. Both burials of 12 headless bodies at the Iron Age site at Gournay-sur-Aronde and heads found at the River Walbrook in Londinium which support the claim that not only did the Celts participated in human sacrifice but ritual decapitations as well. This does raise alot of questions as to the significance of ritual beheading in a religious context.
Barry Cunliffe has stated that the Celts held “reverence for the power of the head” and that “to own and display a distinguished head was to retain and control the power of the dead person”. Anne Ross asserted that “the Celts venerated the head as a symbol of divinity and the powers of the otherworld, and regarded it as the most important bodily member, the very seat of the soul.” To own the head, in a warrior mindset, would be to own the strength of the dead man. Much like military personnel today who wears medals and ribbons to show achievement, it’s possible that the Gauls did it too. Strabo has said, “the heads of enemies held in high repute they used to embalm in cedar oil and exhibit to strangers.” Killing and taking the head of a well renown enemy would have been seen as a badge of honor and prestige.
There have been archeological finds that support a trophy mount or a religious altar of sorts for the purpose of displaying these heads have been found at the Gaulish site of Entremont near Aix-en-Provence. A fragment of a pillar carved with images of skulls was found, within which were niches where actual human skulls were kept, nailed into position, fifteen examples of which were found as well as Roquepertuse nearby has similar heads and skull niches. These pillars, in my opinion, are examples of beheading as a combination of religious significance and of military practice.
However there are counterpoint made by Miranda Aldhouse-Green and Ronald Hutton. Green has said, “I refute any suggestion that the head itself was worshipped but it was clearly venerated as the most significant element in a human or divine image representing the whole” while Hutton came out fully against the notion believing that both the literary and archaeological evidence did not warrant this conclusion, noting that “the frequency with which human heads appears upon Celtic metalwork proves nothing more than they were a favourite decorative motif, among several, and one just as popular among non-Celtic peoples.” Hopefully someday more evidence will shed light on this bizarre form of cultus but as stated at the beginning of this section, they did make idols and figures depicting, what appears to be either a heroic or ancestral figure.
Gaulish Ancestor Cults
While there aren’t any written accounts of ancestor or hero worship, there are clues that suggest it. The Glauberg Prince figure found in Hessen, Germany as mentioned earlier, the Lady of Vix Grave in Burgundy held the Vid Krater which had a small female figure in the center is supposedly a depiction of the Lady of Vix herself showing possible veneration. One of the most famous artifacts is the Mšecké Žehrovice Head from c. 150-50 BC found at the double Viereckschanze site in Mšecké Žehrovice, about 65 km northwest of Prague, Czech Republic. This find has also supported the Cult of the Head discussion since the head is seemingly a depiction of a warrior and was a votive offering along with burnt animal bones. A few full sized, semi-realistic, statues have been found at sites in parts of Germany best summarized by the Warrior of Hirschlanden found north of the Alps. The Warrior of Hirschlanden is unique as it seems to date from Halstatt rather than the other finds which are definitely La Tène.
Hutton’s argument of preferred art style of the Celts could still apply but I feel it’s a weak point considering all of the Gauls neighbors and Celtic cousins practiced ancestor and hero veneration. It’s so similar to the type of animism found within Gaulish Polytheism, it goes beyond coincidence. Furthermore, the Gauls of the La Tène and the Halsatt eras were very found of the Greeks. Greek artifacts have been found in graves and other sites and some art seems to be inspired by Greek influences especially tribes close to Hellenistic cultures like the Galatians who often fought as mercenaries for Hellenistic armies. Halstatt cities were loaded with Greek trade goods so why wouldn’t they have taken notice of the Greeks Hero Cults? After the Gallic Wars Helvetian cities had temples dedicated to Rome’s Imperial Cult and Gaulish tribes along the Germanic border traded and shared ideas with the Germanic tribes and if they can share deities like Nehalennia and Rhenus Pater then it’s not out of the question to think that they shared the practice of Ancestor worship and Hero Cultus.
Modern Day Hero and Ancestor Worship
With the past covered, it’s best to discuss these Cultus and how they apply to modern GaulPol. Everyone has their own way of honoring their Heroes and their Ancestors. Most have a separate altar or sacred space or they have a spot on their altar that is for them. Personally I use the latter. A corner of my altar is set with idols to Ogmios, the Gaulish equivalent to Heracles which is another link to the Gauls having a Hero Cultus, and Divico, the Helvetii Tigurini Cheif and General who fought against Rome during the Cimbrian War and possibly the Gallic War. Ogmios is said to be the first Gaul, the first Gaulish Ancestor and Divico is one of the most defiant Heroes to face Rome. Pictures and obituaries of my family are also in this area of my altar. Again, everyone has their own method and traditions for honoring the ancestors and heroes and for more information on that, listen to episode 8 of Gaulcast where my co-host and I chat with a member of the community, Selgoûiros, who’s site and information on the topic helped with my research for this article and whom I owe I great thanks
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