Bel and the Belgae

I. The Belgae

Bel (Belin, Belinos, Belenus) ‘Shining’ is a Celtic god whose worship is attested by inscriptions and place-names here in Britain and on the continent. He was likely the patron god of the Belgae tribes.

The term ‘Belgae’ is linked etymologically to the name Bel and to the Proto-Celtic root *belg- or *bolg which means ‘to swell (with anger or battle fury)’. I believe it might also be connected to a tradition amongst the Celts of numerous tribes coming together for the purpose of war and raiding.

The Belgae or Belgi are named as a confederacy of tribes by Strabo and Caesar in the first century BC. Strabo notes that, of the warlike tribes on the northern coast of Gaul, the Belgi ‘are the best.’ He tell us ‘they are divided into fifteen tribes, and live along the ocean between the Rhine and the Loire.’ The best of these tribes are the Bello(v)aci then the Suessiones. He claims ‘the number of the Belgi of former times that can bear arms amounted to about three hundred thousand.’

Caesar tells us: ‘All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third.’ He cites a report from the Remi: ‘the Bellovaci were the most powerful among them… these could muster 100,000 armed men… The Suessiones were their nearest neighbors and possessed a very extensive and fertile country… they had promised 50,000 armed men… the Nervii… the most warlike among them… [had promised] as many; the Atrebates 15,000; the Ambiani, 10,000; the Morini, 25,000; the Menapii, 9,000; the Caleti, 10,000; the Velocasses and the Veromandui as many; the Aduatuci 19,000; that the Condrusi, the Eburones, the Caeraesi, the Paemani, who are called by the common name of Germans [had promised], they thought, to the number of 40,000.’

My research has led me to believe that the roots of the Belgae, their worship of Bel, and tradition of hosting and raiding might be traced back to at least to the sixth century, through the places the Celts migrated to from Gaul, which map onto inscriptions to Bel, and back to their Gaulish homeland.

II. Bellovesus and the Birds of Bel

Writing in the first century BC Livy notes that, during the sixth century BC, ‘The Celts, who make up one of the three divisions of Gaul, were under the the domination of the Bituriges’. Their king was Ambigatus and, under his rule, Gaul ‘grew so rich in corn and so populous, that it seemed hardly possible to govern so great a multitude.’ The old king ‘wishing to relieve his kingdom of a burdensome throng’ decided to send his sister’s sons, Bellovesus and Segovesus, to find new homes.

Here we find a swelling of Celtic people and a son named Bellovesus, who may have taken that name because Bel was the patron deity of his people. We are told they are sent ‘to find such homes as the gods might assign them by augury… Whereupon to Segovesus were by lot assigned the Hercynian highlands (the Black Forest and Bohemia), but to Bellovesus the gods proposed a far pleasanter road, into Italy. Taking with him the surplus population – Bituriges, Arverni, Senones, Aedui, Ambarri, Carnutes, Aulerci – he set out with a vast host, some mounted, some on foot.’

They passed through the Alps into the Po Valley, defeated the Etruscans near the river Ticinus, and established Mediolanum ‘the settlement in the middle of the plain’ (Milan). This became the centre of Cisalpine Gaul ‘Gaul this side of the Alps’. Pompeius Trogus, a native of south Gaul also writing in the 1st century, notes that other Celtic settlements included Como, Brescia, Verona, Bergamo, Trento, and Vicenza. He numbers the host of Bellovesus at 300,000. He says that some ‘settled in Italy… some led by birds spread through the head of the Adriatic and settled in Pannonia.’

It is of interest that the new homes of the Celtic people were assigned by the gods by augury and that they were led by birds. This suggests that Bellovesus or someone amongst his people was an augur, someone skilled in reading the signs of nature, particularly those of birds, and that it was by following those signs they reached and won their settlements. It is possible certain birds were associated with Bel and they saw the will of their gods in the direction of their flight and their victories.

Bellovesus’ invasion paved the way for the influx of more of the Celtic tribes: the Laevi, Libicci, Insubres, and Cenomani, Ananes, Boii, Lingones, and Senones, into the Po Valley in 400 BC. In 390 the Celts marched on Rome, defeated the Roman army at the Tiber tributary to the Allia and destroyed the city, leaving only the defended capitol, and departed with 1,000 pounds of gold.

The Romans were initially terrified by the swollen hoards of the Celts and their attack. They later moved against the Senones between 295 and 283 BC and retook the Po Valley between 197 and 189 BC.

That Bel was the god who led the Celts into Cisalpine Gaul and was worshipped there by both the Celtic peoples and the Romans is proved by numerous inscriptions. 22 were found in Aquiliea (where Bel famously appeared to defend the city in 238 AD) and 6 in Altinum, Concordia, and Iulium Carnicum.

III. Bohemia and Beyond – the Raids of Bolgios and Brennos

Whilst Bellovesus led his people to Italy, Segovesus led his, likely following the Danube, to Bohemia. From there, in 400 BC, there were further migrations with the Celtic peoples establishing new communities in ‘Moravia, Lower Austria, western Hungary, and south-west Slovakia.’ This could explain the inscriptions to Bel in Noricum where he was worshipped as the national god.

During the early fourth century the Celtic war bands passed through the mountains of Illyria and entered negotiations with the King of Macedonia, Alexander the Great. 50 years later Alexander died, his empire fell, and a Celtic warlord named Bolgios led a Celtic and Thracian force against the Macedonians. Bolgios triumphed, the leader of their enemies was killed, and his head was paraded on a spear.

It is notable that the name Bolgios comes from the same root, *belg- or *bolg, as Belgae. As a war leader he was perhaps seen to embody the swollen might of the tribes and their battle fury. It is notable that Bolgios and his people participated in the Celtic tradition of head hunting – taking the heads of the most prestigious of the enemies and displaying them as a sign of their prowess.

Bolgios opened the way for a thrust to the south-east led by Brennos who went on to sack Delphi in 279. This included a raid on the temple to Apollo and the theft of its treasure, which ended up in Toulose. In some accounts Brennos and his men were driven off by their adversaries and in others Apollo took revenge. The Celts were defeated and Brennos, fatigued and humiliated, committed suicide

In some inscriptions Bel is equated Apollo. One wonders whether this was an attempt to replace one shining god with another. Whatever the case it seems it was not the will of the gods and the raiders suffered.

IV. Bel and the Belgae in Britain

The expansion of the Roman Empire pressed some of the Celts back north to their homeland in Gaul and it seems possible this resulted in the hosting of the Belgae described by Caesar in the first century.

By this time some of the Belgae had moved even further north, across the channel, to Britain. Caesar writes: ‘The interior portion of Britain is inhabited by those of whom they say that it is handed down by tradition that they were born in the island itself: the maritime portion by those who had passed over from the country of the Belgae for the purpose of plunder and making war; almost all of whom are called by the names of those states from which being sprung they went thither, and having waged war, continued there and began to cultivate the lands.’

Once again we find the Belgae associated with war and plunder before they settled down to work the land. Barry Cunliffe places the event ‘in the late second or early first century BC since the memory was still alive in Caesar’s time.’ ‘The simplest explanation is that they landed somewhere on the Solent coast and settled in Hampshire, where the Roman geographers later located the Belgae, their capital being Venta Belgarum (‘the market of the Belgae’), modern Winchester.’

Their king, Cunobelinus, ‘Hound of Belinus’, ruled not only the Belgae but the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes from 9 to 40 AD and styled himself as ‘King of the Britons’. He was recognised by Augustus as a client king. His son, Caratacus, expanded his territory into that of the Atrebates, who were also friendly with Rome. The fleeing of their ruler, Verica, to the Emperor Claudius, was the pretext for the Roman invasion of 43 AD. Thenceforth the people of Bel fought against the Romans.

Inscriptions to Bel at Vindolanda and an at unknown site as well as 28 to Belatucadros near Hadrian’s Wall and the dedication of the Ribble, in Lancashire, to Belisama, show Bel and deities who shared the etymology of his name were not only worshipped on the south coast but in the north. Whether Bel’s worship was borne north by the Belgae or whether he was already popular is unknown.

Bel lives on in the medieval Welsh tradition as Beli Mawr and as the consort of Don/Anna he is the father of the Children of Don and, through his daughter, Penarddun, wife of Llyr, an ancestor of the Children of Llyr. He is also listed as an ancestral figure in the genealogies of the Men of the North.

The son of Beli, Caswallon, usurped the throne of Britain from Caradog, the son of Brân the Blessed, a son of Llyr. Another son of Beli, Nudd/Lludd Llaw Eraint (who was worshipped in Iron Age and Roman Britain by the earlier name of Nodens) later took the throne as a god-king of Britain. Internicine warfare was characteristic of the Brythonic gods and their people.

V. Bel the Bellicose

In this article I have traced the history of Bel and the Belgae and it has revealed that by name and by act they were a warrior people whose lives and culture were based around war and raiding. Bel, ‘Shining’, was a bellicose god who inspired invasions and raids, with a love of shining treasures.

This is perhaps best reflected by the Belgic coins minted during the reign of Cunobelinus.

Their values are at utter odds with my own and many other polytheists living in the twenty-first century for whom war is a source of horror rather than glory and treasure of corruption rather than prestige. My brief encounters with Bel have revealed that he remains a forceful god who likes shiny things.

Bel is also associated with the sun and fire and the Celtic festival of Beltane (1st of May), during which cattle were driven between two ‘Bel-fires’ to purify them before they were moved to summer grazing places. This shows Bel was important not only as a war god for the warrior elite but for cowherds.

The Irish stories suggest, as a bellicose giant with a burning eye, he was slain by his grandson, Lugus/Lugh/Lleu and this is the foundation of the harvest festival of Lughnasadh (1st of August). Thus he held an important position for the people who worked the land in the cross quarter agricultural calendar used in Gaul in the 1st century BC, later in Ireland, and no doubt in Britain too.

The nature of the rites of Bel and how they were practiced and experienced by the Belgae remains unknown. As a devotee of Vindos/Gwyn, son of Nodens/Nudd, grandson of Bel/Beli Mawr I am just beginning to explore these histories and myths and what they might mean for modern polytheists.

SOURCES

Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts (Penguin, 1999)
Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins, (Oxford University Press, 2013)Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)
W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn (transl), Julius Caesar, The Gallic Wars, https://www.stcharlesprep.org/01_parents/oneil_j/Useful%20Links/AP%20Latin%20Assignments/HW/The%20Gallic%20Wars.pdf

Bel – The Shining One

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.

SOURCES

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)