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