Updated Thursday, 22-Jul-2004 13:45:39 PDT

 

Taranis

Taranis

the Thunderer

(Musee des Antiquities Nationales, St. Germain-en-Laye, France)

 The Roman poet Lucan (b. 39 CE in Cordoba Spain, d. 65 CE in Rome), provides the only literary evidence we have for the Celtic God Taranis. In his poem Bellum civile, better known as the Pharsalia, he writes:

"...and those Gauls who propitiate with human sacrifices the merciless gods Teutas, Esus and Taranis - at whose alters the visitany shudders because they are as awe-inspiring as those of the Scythian Diana."

Lucan, Pharsalia I, 422-465

Miranda Green in The World of the Druids, p. 78 states, regarding Lucan:

"Lucan was writing in the mid-first century AD about deities allegedly encountered by Caesar's army in Gaul in the mid-first century BCE (P. 23). Lucan refers to human sacrifice in general terms, but a commentator on his poem, writing in Switzerland in the ninth century AD, clearly had access to early documents that have since been lost, for he elaborates on Lucan's comments in his description of the most appropriate human sacrifice for each of the three gods. Taranis, the thunder-god, was appeased by fire; the victims of Esus (the 'Lord') were stabbed and hanged from a tree until they bled to death; and those assigned to Teutates were drowned. The link between Taranis and fire has led to the assumption that the construction and burning of the Wicker Man (p. 75), described by Caesar and Strabo, were associated with the Thunderer. We cannot be sure about this, but the immolation of human victims by fire was a fitting rite for a god who was responsible for lightning."

 

The name Taranis derives from the Celtic (or Indo-European) root 'taran' meaning thunderer or thunder. The above bronze figurine was found in Le Chatelet, France and is dated to the 1st to 2nd century BCE. It shows a wise, patriarchal being holding a lightening bolt and a solar wheel. As one who grew up in the Western traditions, this figure is almost instantly recognizable as Jupiter, only the solar wheel giving away the fact that this is a Celtic and not a Roman figure.

"The oldest known coherent account of the Celtic pantheon is Caesar's, who lists their major deities, defining their respective functions briefly though clearly. Unfortunately, Caesar does not give their Gaulish names, only their Roman equivalents. The first to be mentioned is Mercury, the most highly revered among the Gauls and presumably corresponding to Lugh, the supreme lord. Then comes Apollo, said to "drive away disease," then Minerva, who "transmits the principles of arts and crafts," then Jupiter, who "rules over the skies," and finally Mars, who "oversees war." Scholars agree that these deities correspond to the three main functions of the Indo-European system: the sacred (Jupiter), war (Mars), and productivity (Apollo and Minerva)." (Kruta et al., p. 132)

The association of Taranis with Fire is clear from the above figure and Caesar's words., the fire of the skies, the Sun, and the fire of the air, lightening and its voice thunder, giving the God his name, Taranis. "Elsewhere we find Jove 'complete with wheel,' thought to represent the Celtic god of thunder, Taranis, who, hurling his wheel through the clouds, unleashed the terrible din. He turns up in 'classical' styles which must surely be official. A link is thus established from the little 'ritual wheels' of the Bronze and Iron Ages to the Gundestrup cauldron, and to representations of the Empires."

Pre-Roman Images of "Taranis":

The amazing site in the Camonica valley near Paspardo, Italy (Valcamonica: see "Footsteps of Man tracing") contains many thousands of rock carvings that span the paleolithic to the late iron age periods. This area was invaded by the Celts during the late Hallstat period and settled by them during the late Iron Age. Carvings from this latter period may relate to the gods Taranis and Cernunnos.

 Val Camonica Taranis

 This figure, dated to the late iron age depicts a man wearing what appears to be highly decorative armor or clothing, wielding a club or bolt of lightning in his right hand and having a wheel for a head. The object in his left hand is confusing, but may be anthropomorphic, perhaps a sacrifice accepted.

Does this figure represent the wheel god, Taranis, and was he carved by the Celts from the Hallstat culture who migrated across the Alps into northern Italy during the middle and later iron age periods (600-400 BCE) after collapse of the trade with the Etruscans?

 

The Archeological Evidence:

There are 7 alters to Taranis extant, all bearing inscriptions in Latin or Greek. These are in Chester in Britain; Bockingen and Godramstein in Germany; Orgon, Thauron and Tours in France and Scardona in Yugoslavia, throughout the Celtic world.

 Bockingen Alter
The alter dedicated to Taranis in Bockingen, Germany. The inscription reads, Deo Taranucno Veriatus Primus ex iussu: "To the God Taranis, Veratius Primus, by order..."

The alter in Chester, England, though weathered has been transcribed earlier and reads: "To Jupiter Best and Greatest Tanarus, Lucius Bruttius Praesens, of the Galerian Voting Tribe, from Clunia, princeps of Legion XX Valeria Victrix, willing and deservedly fulfilled his vow, in the consulships of Commodus and Lateranus" (154 CE) I have been unable to find an image of this alter (or those at Tours, Godramstein, Thauron or Scardona). Anyone having these, please e-mail me. This inscription, by a Roman soldier, shows the influence of Celtic spirituality on Roman religion.

Orgon Alter

The alter at Orgon (Bouches-du-Rhône), France

The Orgon inscription is in Gaulish using Greek letters. the name Tarano... is clearly shaded in the above picture.

Chris Gwinn has kindly provided a translation" It is a common Gaulish dedicatory statement: X (personal name) DEDE (verb "gives") Y (Divine name in the dative, thus "to Taranus" in this case) BRATOU "in thanks (from the celtic root Brat- "thought/mind")" DECANTEM "a tithe(donation-from the celtic root Deca-"ten")" The personal name in this case is Uebromaros "the great amber(haired) one" See P.Y. Lambert's La Langue Gauloise (CNRS 1992/94, Paris) for more on Gaulish grammar as well as translations of the major inscriptions.

Green, (Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend p. 206) interprets the inscription as refering to 'Thunder' as an "elemental force" which had been deified. In contrast the inscriptions at Scardona, Thauron and Chester use Taranis as a "surname or epithet" of the Roman Jupiter.

The "Symbolic" or Imaginary Evidence:

Many others have equated Celtic images with Taranis on the basis of symbols (e.g., the solar wheel) or from conflations of the imagination and esoteric sources. This evidence, while 'imaginary', perhaps bests describes Taranis as would like him to be today.

Proinsias Mac Cana considers the solar wheel to be the symbol of Taranis and considers the following images to be equated with Him. If he is correct, than Taranis was among the highest deities of the Celts as the solar wheel is one of the most prevelent symbol on Celtic artifacts.

Gundestrup TaranisCorbridge Taranis

Both of these images, the one on the left from the Gundestrup cauldron 200 - 100 BCE and that on the right from a mould for an applique figure found in Corbridge, Northunberland, 200 - 300 CE, show a figure associated with a wheel, the Gundestrup figure with his arms in a position often associated with Celtic deities and the Corbridge figure holding a club and a sheild, perhaps for beating on to make the sound of thunder.

 Man Headed Horse  Otto Frey speculated, in a moment of inspiration, that the man-headed horse from the princely tomb of Reinheim (ca. 450 BCE) is a representation of Taranis (Kruta et al., p. 132) He writes, "The horse with the human head from Reinheim could be Taranis."
 Coin  Numerous coins, primarily from Gaul show man-headed horses on the reverses. One of the more spectacular examples is shown on the left. A grim- reaper like figure hovers above, replacing the usual rider. Notice the solar wheel behind. (Courtesy of Michel Prieur and Laurent Schmitt, Monnaies II, 1997, Paris)

More to come...