In Ireland’s Immortals Mark Williams speaks of Bel as ‘a completely spurious god’ who ‘lingers in popular accounts of Celtic mythology’. When I read these words I sensed the mirth and indignation of Bel, ‘Shining One’, a god I have known for several years whose presence I associate with the sun and its light shining on water. In this article I will argue that Bel is not only not spurious, but is one of our most significant Celtic deities.
The names ‘Bel’, ‘Belino’, ‘Belinos’, ‘Belenus’, are attested on over fifty altars mainly from Gallia Norbenensis, Noricum, and Cisalpine Gaul, showing he was widely worshipped as a continental Celtic god. Belenus was the patron deity of Aquileia and the Historia Augusta (117 – 284 CE) relates that he aided his people in the defence of the city against the Roman armies led by Maximinus.
In Ausonius’ Poems Commemorating the Professors of Bordeaux (395 CE) we find lines about druids serving Belenus:
You are sprung from the Druids of Bayeux,
If the report does not lie.
To you is a sacred lineage,
From the temple of Belenus.
Nor will I forget
The old man named Phoebicius,
Who through the servant of (the Gaulish god) Belenus
Received no profit thereby
Sprung, it said, from the Druids
Of Armorica (Brittany),
He received a chair at Bordeaux
Through the help of his son.
Although there are no inscriptions to Bel in Britain the Ptolemy records the estuary of the Ribble as Belisama Aest. in his Geography (150 CE). Belisama means ‘Very Shining One’. She is a Gallo-Brythonic goddess with altars in Vaison-la-Romaine and Saint-Lizier and is perceived as Bel’s consort.
Bel may have been the patron god of the Belgae tribe who inhabited northern Gaul and southern Britain during the Iron Age. Will Parker claims ‘Belinos was a powerful cult figure amongst the Belgic dynasties’ and links him to Beli Mawr ‘the personification of the Belgic peoples’.
Beli was an ancestral deity who fathered Lludd/Nudd who was known as Nodens in Iron Age Britain. Parallels with the Irish Tuatha Dé Danann suggest that, like his Irish cognate, Nuada, Nodens was the ruler of the Children of Don, thus his mother was Don and his father was Beli their other children were the skilled gods Gwydion, Gilfaethwy, Arianrhod, Gofannon, and Amaethon. The marriage of Beli and Don may date back to 250 BCE when people from the Danube joined the Belgae.
As the father of Lludd/Nudd, Beli was the grandfather of Gwyn ap Nudd and Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd, which has particular meaning to me as Gwyn is my patron. As the father of Arianrhod he was the grandfather of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and this may be connected to the Irish tale of Balor and Lugh.
Another of his daughters, likely with Don, was Penarddun. She was the mother of Brân and Manawydan with Llyr. This shows Beli was an ancestral figure both for the Children of Don and the Children of Llyr.
Beli was also the father of Caswallon/Cassivellaunos whose name means ‘lover (i.e. devotee) of Belinos’. His people were known as the Catuvellauni, ‘the Host of Belinos’ and one of their leaders was called Cunobelinos ‘Hound of Belinus’. In the Second Branch of The Mabinogion when Brân takes his armies overseas he leaves his son, Caradog, and seven men in charge. Caswallon dons an invisibility cloak, kills six of the men, excepting Pendaren Dyfed, and is crowned King of Britain.
Parker argues that Beli and Brân may originate from the Belgic warlords Bolgios* and Brennus who were responsible for expeditions in Macedonia and the sacking of Delphi in 279 BCE. They appear as two rival kings, Belinus and Brennus, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Britains.
Many of the royal houses of Wales and the Old North (Gwynedd, Powys, Rheged, Strathclyde and the Gododdin) trace their ancestry back to Beli and Don (in the genealogies she is called Anna). Beli is listed as the grandfather of Afallach, a King of Annwn and the father of Modron.
Afallach may be another name of Gwyn, a King of Annwn, who we know is the son of Lludd/Nudd through Beli. Gwyn is associated with Avalon, ‘the island of apples’, one of his sacred seats being Glastonbury Tor. Afallach is anglicised as Eveling and is said to dwell with Modron at the Roman fortresses of Glanoventa (Ravenglass) and Mediobogdum (on the Hard Knott Pass).
Matrona/Modron is the mother of Maponos/Mabon and they are depicted on altars across Britain particularly in the north. Urien, King of Rheged, raped Modron, and she bore his son and daughter, Owain and Morfydd.
Thus, far from being a spurious god, Bel is a deeply significant ancestral god in the lineages of the Children of Don and Llyr and the Welsh and Northern dynasties.
He lives on in later folklore as a giant charming story about how he gave his name to Belgrave. He claimed he could get from Mountsorrel to Leicester in three leaps, but these proved to be his undoing and death. The association of his deed with local place names is recorded in this rhyme:
Mountsorrel he mounted at
Rothley he rode by,
At Wanlip he leaped o’er,
At Birstall he burst his gall,
At Belgrave he was buried at.
Bel also gives his name to Belmont and Belthorn here in Lancashire. I believe his associations with Belisama, goddess of the Ribble, run deep. Nodens/Nudd was venerated in Lancashire and likely Gwyn and there are two altars to the Mothers and one to Maponos on the Ribble. This suggests some kind of cultus surrounded this ‘family’ of deities during the Romano-British period and likely in the Iron Age and even earlier.
Bel is associated with the Irish fire festival of Beltane which in Britain is known as Nos Galan Mai. One of my first encounters with Bel was at a time when I was planning a ritual for my local Pagan society to mark the occasion and, whilst walking by the Ribble I heard the lines: ‘Bel and Belisama / join together / fire and water / sun on the river’. This led to the creation of a rite to Bel and Belisama centring on the mixing of fire and water and jumping over a bowl with a lit candle in it. This, with the backdrop of the Ribble, is still my representation of Bel and Belisama on my altar now.
*Bolgios means ‘to bulge’ and may relate to him being a giant or swelling with battle rage like the distant descendant of Beli, Cú Chulainn: ‘He swelled and bellied like a bladder full of breath until he arched up over Fer Diad like a monstrously distorted rainbow, tall and horrible as a Formorian giant.’ Brân, his grandson in the genealogies, was also depicted as a giant too big to fit in a house large as a mountain with a ridge for a nose and eyes like lakes.
Blanca María Prósper, ‘The Irreducible Gauls used to swear by Belenos – or did they?’, (The University of Manchester Library, 2017)
Esmerelda Mac, ‘Eveling, Cumbria’s Fairy King and Celtic God’, Esmerelda’s Cumbrian History and Folklore, https://esmeraldamac.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/eveling-cumbrias-faery-king-and-celtic-god/
John T. Koch, The Celtic Heroic Age, (Celtic Studies Publications, 2013)
Mark Williams, Ireland’s Immortals, (Princeton University Press, 2018)
Matthew Simpson, Bel – The Leicester Giant, http://www.thiswasleicestershire.co.uk/2012/09/bel-leicester-giant.html
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)