‘And those who pacify with blood accursed
Savage Teutates, Hesus’ horrid shrines,
And Taranis’ altars cruel as were those
Loved by Diana, goddess of the north’.
Lucanus (Pharsalia Book 1)
The three Celtic deities best known from classical sources are Teutates, Esus, and Taranis. Teutates is identified with Mars or Mercury, and receives as human sacrifice drowned captives and fallen warriors. Esus is also identified with Mercury but also with Mars, and he accepts as human sacrifices prisoners who are hanged on trees and then dismembered. The Celtic ‘Thunder-God’ – Taranis, who is also known from eight inscriptions found in Germany, Hungary, Croatia, France and Belgium, and also figures as the character of Taran in the Cymric (Welsh) Mabinogi of Branwen ferch Llŷr, is identified with Jupiter, as a warlord and a sky god. Human sacrifices to Taranis were made by burning prisoners (see Mac Congail/Krusseva 2010, The Men Who Became the Sun. Barbarian Art and Religion on the Balkans. Plovdiv).
Taranis (with wheel and thunderbolt)
Le Chatelet, Gourzon,Haute-Marne, France
It is interesting that the main Celtic God, Lugh/Lugus, is not mentioned by Lucanus (op cit), leading to the suggestion of Rübekeil (2003:38), in view of his hypothesis of a Celtic origin of the Germanic god Odin, that Lugus refers to the trinity Teutates-Esus-Taranis considered as a single god (Rübekeil L. Wodan und andere forschungsgeschichtliche Leichen: exhumiert, Beiträge zur Namenforschung 38 (2003), 25–42).
Based on writings in the ninth century comment on Lucan, the Berne Scholia and descriptions in Caesar’s De Bello Gallica Taranis has been identified as the deity to whom both Julius Caesar and Strabo describe human sacrifices being offered by being burnt alive in ‘wicker men’. The Berne Scholia also describes Taranis as a ‘master of war’ and links him with the Roman deity Jupiter. Taranis’ name is derived from the Proto-Celtic root *torano- ‘thunder’ [Noun] (GOlD: Olr. torann – ‘thunder, noise’ W: MW taran [f] ‘(peal of) thunder, thunderclap’, BRET: OBret. taran gl. tonitru, MoBret. taran [m] CO: OCo. taran gl. tonitruum, MCo. taran).
The Gaulish word for ‘thunder’ is preserved in the Gasconian dialect of French (taram). The Celtic forms are best explained by a metathesis *tonaro- > *torano-. The unmetathesized form is perhaps attested as the OBrit. Theonym Tanaro and in the old name of the river Po, Tanarus ‘thundering’. (REF: LEIA T-l13, GPC III: 3447, Delamarre 290, Deshayes 2003: 714; See Matasovic R., Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic. Leinen/Boston 2009. P. 384, with relevant lit.).
THE WHEEL OF TARANIS
Associated with the Celtic Thunder God is the Solar Wheel or Wheel of Taranis. The wheel was an important symbol in Celtic polytheism, associated with a specific god, known as the wheel-god, identified as the sky-, sun-, or thunder-god, whose name is attested to as Taranis by Lucanus (op cit). Numerous coins and other artifacts across areas of Celtic settlement in Europe, from Gaul in the west to Thrace in the east, also depict the wheel of Taranis:
Votive wheels called Rouelles, thought to correspond to the cult of Taranis. Thousands of such wheels have been found in sanctuaries and other sites across Celtic Europe.
(Musée d’Archéologie Nationale)
Gaul. The Aedui tribe. (Circa 80-50 BC)
AR Quinarius. Helmeted head of Roma left / horse prancing left, Wheel of Taranis below.
Gaul. The Redones tribe. Billon Stater.
Celticized head of Apollo right / Celticized chariot: androcephalic horse leaping right, charioteer above & behind, holding whip over horse’s head. Wheel of Taranis below.
Gaul. Silver denarius of the Cavarii (Cavares, region of Avignon).
Circa 80 BC. Stylised laureate head left / horse galloping left, Wheel of Taranis below.
Gaul, The Osismii tribe (2 – 1 c. BC).
Silver quarter unit. Celticized head left / Human-headed horse galloping left; Celticized rider with head looking upward. Wheel of Taranis before.
Celticized horse rearing left, in upper field star, V with dotted border, & cross with four annulets between arms, pellet-cross under belly, star under tail; Wheel of Taranis, two stars & globule in front, above a row of pellets, herringbone pattern, solid line above which three stars.
Celtic Raetia, The Helvetii.
Base AV Stater. Traces of head of Apollo right / Biga right, driver above, Wheel of Taranis beneath horses.
THUNDER ON THE BALKANS
In southeastern Europe a range of Celtic artifacts have also been found which depict the Wheel of Taranis. The Celtic deity holding the solar wheel is represented, for example, on Plate C of the Gundestrup Cauldron thought to have been produced by the Thraco-Celtic Scordisci tribes in northwestern Bulgaria in the late 2nd c. BC (see ‘The Scordisci Wars’ article’). Artifacts depicting the Wheel of Taranis in this region range from Celtic coins dating from the 3rd c. BC onwards, to Romano-Celtic artifacts from the same region dating to the 3rd/4th c. AD.
Taranis with Wheel as depicted on plate C of the Gundestrup cauldron
In the 20’s of the 2nd c. BC the Scordisci tribe in Thrace came under attack from the north. An expansion of the Germanic Cimbri tribe was finally repulsed near the Celtic settlement of Singidunum (Belgrade), and the Cimbri migrated further west (Rankin D. Celts and the Classical World. New York 1987:19 ). It is likely that it was during these events that the most famous of Scordisci treasures, the Gundestrup cauldron, was looted and carried off by the Cimbri (Bergquist A.K., Taylor T.F. The Origin of the Gundestrup Cauldron, Antiquity, vol. 61, 1987. 10-24; See also ‘The Scordisci Wars’ article on this site).
Celtic tetradrachms from the Ribnjacka Hoard (Bjelovar, Croatia) – 2nd / 1st c. BC. Note the Wheel of Taranis in front of the horseman on the reverse. A large number of tetradrachms found in this hoard bore the symbol of the Taranis Wheel (Nos. 45 – 64).
(After Kos P., Mirnik I. The Ribnjacka Hoard (Bjelovar, Croatia). In The Numismatic Chronicle 159 (1999)
Scordisci AR Drachm. Dachreiter type. Serbia/Bulgaria – 2nd – 1st c. BC.
Laureate head (of Zeus?) right / Horse trotting left. Wheel of Taranis above (On the Scordisci ‘Taranis’ coins see Numismatic section 4).
Romano-Celtic Lead amulet from Ratiaria (modern Archar) northwestern Bulgaria (3rd c. AD).
Note the Wheel of Taranis, a common iconic symbol on Scordisci coins and other Celtic artifacts in Thrace
(See in particular numismatic section 4 and ‘Sacrificial Daggers, Swords and Settlements’ articles; After Markov 2005; See ‘Hounds of the Empire’ article)
Evidence for the worship of Taranis, and the depiction of the Solar Wheel associated with this Celtic deity on coins and other artifacts across Celtic Europe, is particularly important as it clearly illustrates that despite regional differences between the pan-Celtic peoples, certain core religious beliefs and iconography were shared, and remained constant despite temporal and geographic dispersion.