Sacred Space: A Look into Gaulish Ritual Space and Practices


When people first get involved with the Pagan community, there are certain things they look into to see if it is a right fit for them. One of these things include the use of ritual and magic. Given the history of the modern Pagan movement, there are things that people consider standards in regards to these practices, even to the point where people don’t even question them. However as a reconstructionist, there have been quite a few things that other Pagans consider to be “standard” that I have moved away from, not because they don’t work but because they are not reflected in my research. One of these standards includes the method I use in the setting up and establishment of ritual space. A little while ago, I read an article by Morgan Daimler named Irish American Witchcraft: Circle Casting – Water and Walking, who basically addressed some of the same things I have seen in my reconstruction work. This article spurred up conversations among friends of mine in the Pagan community, many of whom were curious about what exactly I was doing, and these conversations made it clear to me that even though I had an understanding on how to establish sacred space in regards to my practices, my ability to clearly communicate why I did what I did needed refinement (alright, a lot of work…). So with much prayer-work, ritual practice, and research (within my Gaulish and ADF studies), I rolled up my sleeves and went down the rabbit hole of reconstructed Indo-European and Gaulish ritual structures and sacred layout of temple structures.

Before I go into my overview of the different aspects of Gaulish and Indo-European sacred space, one thing that I want to point out that came up in my research of ritual structures in my Initiate Study work with ADF is that the relationship between ritual structure and the layout of the ritual space are two halves of the same coin. You want to have the ritual area laid out in a way that complements the practice of ritual being preformed. You also want to make sure things are placed in a way where the ritual runs smoothly and you are not running into other people. If these things are not placed properly, it can pull away from the sense of immersion participants can have within the ritual. (Serith, p. 50-51) With that sense of logic, it only makes sense that one can infer various possibilities of how ancient rituals were preformed by the layout of ritual space as well as by historical references to ritual practices by eye witness accounts. This is something that is easier to do with cultures like the Greeks and the Romans where there is an overabundance of information to work with, but with groups like the Norse or the Celts, this involves more digging. It can also involve putting aside modern prejudices regarding source information.

With that being said, there are some common elements that come up.

Overview of Gaulish Temple Structures

Given the size of the area and the diversity of tribes among the Gaulish Celtic region, there are certain patterns that come up when we look how the Gauls looked at sacred space. In addition to sacred groves with wood carved idols mentioned in the historical work, temple structures seem to express themselves in 6 different architectural styles. The most basic structure was referred to by the Romans as the cella. This was a basic square shaped structure, sometimes found circular or polygonal, that housed ritual objects such as statues of gods/honored ancestors, objects believed to be sacred like stone pillars, and various other objects. These structures also had a place to give offerings such as a fire pit or offering pits in the ground. Depending on the time period, this structure could be a simple enclosure with a supported roof and no walls (like a open shelter that one would see in a modern park) or it could be a enclosed building with walls on three sides and one side being open, almost always to a eastward or southern direction. (Goodman, p.81) The establishment of a basic roof shelter would have been something to help protect the ritual items from the weather. The next structure is a cella with protruding porch. This structure is exactly the same as the basic cella but with a porch added to it, again on the eastward or southern side of the building. With the third structure type, we get into what is considered more the classical “Gaulish Temple”, which is a central cella surrounded by a gallery. There has been speculation as to the function of the gallery with the temple from various scholars which I will get into below, but this style of temple is quite popular in rural areas in Southern Gaul and is almost exclusively used in Northern Gaul and Brittany. The forth structure is the third type, but the cella has a protruding porch on the front of the temple, same as the second temple type. As we get into the 5th and 6th temple types, these appear to resemble the temples of the Mediterranean regions with the 5th type having a cella and a gallery, surrounded by a pronaos (a pillared porch that wraps around the building like with traditional Greek temples) and the 6th type being identical to the Classical Roman temple style with a peripteral temple with pronaos and a rectangular cella. (Goodman, p.82)

Among these 6 styles, we see not necessary a evolution, but a range of complexity and stylistic preference among the temple styles being used. We also see that the dominance of one style over another varied from region to region. Type 6 was almost used exclusively in the urban areas of Gaul, especially in the southern regions those with strong connections with Rome. Type 3 and 4, referred to as Gallo-Romano temples, we see once you get beyond the boundary of the cities and move into the rural areas, especially at the boundaries of territories, sacred springs, river confluences, and islands. We also find these temples located on bluffs and ridges that overlooked the surrounding area, assuming that location was not already taken by a urban settlement. Various researchers have different theories as to which styles reflected more what is authentically “Gaulish vs Roman” but one thing that is clear when looking at Gaulish history is that the Gaulish Celts had been importing elements of Mediterranean culture for several hundreds of years, incorporating aspects that they liked and making it their own. We see this in regards to temple architecture as well. Each region would adopt different aspects of Mediterranean design while adding their own sense of style into the mix, thus creating clear regional variations in style. Despite all these variations though, one thing that is agreed on by scholars is that when Caesar invaded Gaul, he sped up a process of cultural adaptation that had been going on for some time, which is one of the reasons that he had such support among many of the Gaulish Tribes when he started his campaign. (Goodman, pp. 84-86)

Gaulish Temple Focus: Statues, Stones, Trees, and Pillars

Now that we have covered the different types of temple structures, lets shift our attention to the interior objects of Gaulish temples.

When we look at the various temple structures in Western Europe, what we see is that most to all of them, regardless of whether it was an interior or exterior space, is that there was a central object at the center of the temple. In almost all cases, these objects were statues of gods or honored ancestors, but other objects such as stones or trees have also been found as well. We also have cases where there was a central pillar in the temple space, most of which had a statue posted at the top. In cases where we have statues, excluding those in outdoor spaces on pillars, the statue base was usually a stone block that was large enough to have offerings placed on it. This base also seemed to have been imbedded into the floor foundation of the temple, as if it was placed before the foundations of the building were built. As we move away from the central object, we find in many cases either a fire pit in front of the statue or a small fire on a platform as I stated earlier. We also see that when we move away from a basic cella structure, the temples seem to have more elements added to it including artistic decorations that is assumed to have complemented the focus of the temple’s central object, possibly scenes of mythological drama or the roll of the spirit/god had with the local community. You also find that in many cases, these central objects appear to have enough room for people to walk around them seeing them from all sides. (Kiernan, pp. 189-190)

In situations where the central object is a statue, the materials that these statues were made out of appear to vary over time. The oldest statues from Western Europe have been found in bogs and swamps in Northern Europe. These statues are wooden carvings made out of hardwood and are usually simplistic in nature (identical to the historical references made by Lucan about idols found in sacred groves). They appear to be carved out of single tree branch and they appear to be naked humanoid figures. These statues come in various sizes with some standing almost 10 tall. There are also some examples of stone carved statues at various locations and they are believed to be of honored ancestors given the warrior theme of the ritual space they appear to be from. As we move into the Roman Imperial period, the volume of statues increased and clearly showed the Roman artistic styles of the time. One thing that is interesting in regards to these earlier statues, especially the wooden ones, is that they seem to have been painted and appear to have been dressed in clothing, jewelry, and other ordainments. In situations where the central object of the temple was a statue (vs a tree or a stone of some kind), the statue always faces the main entrance of the temple space, so that the statue would face the people as they approached and entered the space. Some of these temples also had large windows on the sides so the statue could be seen by multiple directions. The ability to see the central object (or be seen by it, which I will shortly get to) seems to be a major feature. (Green: World of Druids, pp. 24, 42; Kiernan, pp. 144-145)

Other Aspects of Gaulish Sacred Space

There are various other aspects regarding these sacred spaces that one can go into. They all seem to be made out of local materials, so if a particular stone was common in a area, that stone was used in the building and crafting of the temple, as well as the objects inside. Same with local wood, cloth, etc. There were exceptions to this based on how established the local trade systems were. We also have references from Classical sources regarding how the Romans interacted with these religious sites and their speculations regarding Gaulish ritual practices. In The Gallic Wars, Caesar wrote, “The Gauls honor their gods by turning around them.” and Athenaeus of Naucratis wrote in his work Deipnosophistae: Book IV, “The slave carries the drink round from left to right and from right to left. This is the way in which they are served (warriors during heroic feast). They make obeisance to the gods also to the right.” (Ministère de la Culture, web; Athenaeus, web) These references of Gaulish religious practices have been speculated to be a ritual called circumambulation, which is the act of walking around a object with the presentation of offerings to the sacred nature of the object or a spirit that is believed to embody or possess said object. (Kiernan, p. 151)

In addition to this, we find that when we look at the statues in relation to the environment around them, whether they are along a major roadway, a holy spring, or a village/community, the statue is always placed in a location that gives it maximum view of that place or the central focus of the space. Even statues located in places that were considered the edge of a area or a boundary, the statue or object would be placed in a way where they can get maximum view of the boundary area while keeping it’s ability to be interacted with by those who are traveling. This also brings us to statues/objects that were associated with sacred springs or entrances into the earth. In these cases, the object in question would be placed either within the well or the pit or at the mouth of the well’s or pit’s opening. For example, at Mainz Finthen in Germany, there is a pit that has been found that is full of remnants of offerings of various kinds. What is interesting about this pit is that at the bottom under the offerings, there is a statue of a goddess believed to be Rosmertâ. We also see with a ritual pit at Yonne in France, a statue of Eponâ placed in a craves to the side inside the pit. The first example can be dismissed as a possible funeral deposit for the idol itself, but the second one is harder to dismiss and seems to be presiding over the offerings that were given to the earth. We also see similar things with statues or objects placed next or within sacred springs and holy wells. (Kiernan, pp. 262-264)

Reflections and Speculations

I am going to be completely honest. What I have presented so far is the tip of a massive iceberg that would take volumes of text to thoroughly explain out. As time moves on, I may choose to take a specific part of this and make it a focus of a blog entry in itself, but that is down the road. I will also be addressing many of these concepts within my ADF studies moving forward.

With that being said, I do want to address a central point that kept coming up with my deep dive into my reconstructed spiritual practices. The central object of the temple (which most people today would probably identify as a idol or a fetish if they are familiar with Voodoo practices) seemed to either be possessed by a spirit or a god, or it was believed to be embodied with divine power, which made it sacred on its own. That embodiment or possession of these objects is what people believed gave them agency (the ability to affect the environment around them, including the people). The distinction between a spirit/god and divine power is something that we do see in ancient Indo-European cultures. For example, the Romans called the spirits genii and they called divine power/might numina and it is clear that they did not see them as the same thing, but they are related to each other. They did see the gods as embodying numina and it appears that this divine spiritual power was either a medium or a byproduct of their agency. Numina was also seen as a substance or essence that could be shared or transferred to other objects, people, etc. It is this divine essence that made objects blessed or holy and thus it became an object that dispensed blessings to the people. (Kiernan, p. 26) We see a similar concept among the Norse with the words Vættir and Mægen where vættir is the word used for spirits and mægen is seen as divine power/might. In many cases, these objects were found as already being in this state, or there were rituals that were performed that prepared and established these items for this purpose. In some cases, elements of earlier statues/objects were made into the formation of a new one thus passing the agency from an older object to a newer one, continuing it legacy as a object that allowed the blessings of a god to be passed to the people. In cases where we find multiple statues/sacred objects within a ritual structure, the primary one that the temple is dedicated to seems to take this central position and in many cases seems to be positioned on a taller platform, such as a column or what seems like a central high seat. This theme seems to also apply to the more classical temples where the ritual items were positioned further back along the back wall of the temple vs the central location in Gallo-Romano temples. It has also been suggested that given that the platform of the high seat (possibly sovereignty stone?) was worked into the foundation of the temples, that this stone and possibly the sacred object on it was in position before the temple was built. If that was the case, than every temple would have been specially designed for that specific god/spirit. (Kiernan, p. 193)

As for places to give offerings such as offering pits or fire pits, the fire pit is a widely common element of the temple structures and would be a common sight to see within both Roman and Gaulish temples in Gaul. What I found interesting is that the statues/sacred objects that were placed next to these temple features seem to correlate with the nature of the god or spirit that it was next to, as we saw with the offering pit and the statues of Eponâ and Rosmertâ already mentioned. Both of these goddesses are seen as goddesses of the earth and it would make sense to send your offerings into the earth for them. We also have some examples of deities associated with waterways, such as Sequana, who is the goddess of the river Seine in France, where offerings were deposited into the water. (Green: Gods of the Celts, p.140) What I got out of this was that if a deity was associated with the sky or heavens like Taranis, offerings to fire allowed the offerings to rise up to meet them. If they are a deity of the earth, like Sucellus or Ogmios, offerings to ground pits seems appropriate, and if they are a deity of a body of water like Sequana, then offerings into water makes the most sense.

The last thing I want to bring up with my deep dive was the reference that the Gauls would walk around their statues and that the temples had room to do so with circumambulation. Circumambulation is a ritual practice that was very common among ancient people throughout Europe and into the Middle East and India. We find examples of it in several Roman and Greek sources, there is an example of it being preformed in the Norse Saga of Hákonar the Good, specially with the Yule blot, and we have examples of circumambulation in Indo-Iranian sources and old Vedic sources as well, not to mention it’s continuation in magical charms found in the Middle Ages in Europe. (Woodward, pp. 126-128; Rowsell, web: Spence, p. 62) So basically, the practice is all over the place….. Fundamentally, you are taking offerings and presenting them around the ritual space to indicate them as a thing of value that is being presented to the gods for their blessings and favor (and thus putting you and the others who have gathered under their divine protection). In most cases, this is a clockwise/sunwise motion, but we do have a few examples of counter clockwise motions and we also have examples of offerings being lead by some form of divination or an animal that was believed to have been possessed by a divine agent. We also have an example from Rome where when they were performing their city-wide rituals, they found the traditional way of performing circumambulation was no longer be practical, so they placed shrines along the border of the ritual area and they would go from the central temple to the boundary shrines to make the offerings. This was a symbolic form of circumambulation that they felt performed the same function (as if giving the offerings at the boundary shrines would connect them and mark the boundary?), which was to reinforce the sanctity and the sovereignty of the god or spirit connected to the central object/statue of the ritual space within the designated area. (Woodward, p. 157-158) To the best of my knowledge, this is not the same as the circle casting we seen in modern Paganism, specifically Wicca, or in traditional ceremonial magic which has it’s roots in Egyptian (and later Christian) magical practices to protect the magician from possibly being affected by a demon they are summoning (who would also have their own protected designated space in the ritual area), however as time changes, so does the intention of function. I would not be surprised if many modern Pagans and Wiccans approach the casting of ritual circle in their rituals with the same regards as the Romans did when they set up boundary shrines. However circumambulation in the traditional sense would be more like a ceremony within a formal gathering with a patron lord or possibly the crafting of magical charms of the Middle Ages where one would walk around an object (or a space) 3 times to imbue it with some form of magical properties, not to isolate an area to build up power like a battery. (Woodward, pp. 126; Hutton, p. 283)

Conclusion: A Model for a Modern Reconstructed Gaulish Ritual Space

So as a modern Gaulish polytheist, how do we take the information and apply it to our modern work? Well the first thing is to figure out where you want to honor the gods and spirits. Given that they, through their idols, need to have a wide view of the ritual space and see when one is approaching them, placing the altar/shrine (whether it is in your home or a outside location) in a space that allows that. Placing your altar close to the central location of the dwelling your in (if it is indoors) is important, but not as important as maximum view. Also, given that Gaulish temples faced a variety of directions between north east to south, if you feel that you need a directional purpose to your ritual space, any one of those directions would work as long as they allow maximum view from the altar. Once the altar location is placed, you want to set up the altar pieces that you will be using to give offerings into (like a offering bowl or a candle) and an object that will function as the presenter of the blessings of the gods/spirits. This object can take the form of a statue, a stone pillar, a image of a tree, ect. If you have a relationship with an actual natural object within your area that is embodied with divine power/agency or a spirit, if that object/spirit gives it’s blessings, you may also use it or part of it as well for this object. This is your basic ritual space: You, an object to send prayers/offerings through, the spirit/god receding your prayers/offerings, and the medium for them to send blessings back as they see fit.

Additional items to consider:

  • If you are honoring multiple gods at your shrine and you have objects to represent them, make sure they all have some form of a offering place in front of their particular object. This will allow maxim view of what you are giving them.
  • Make sure they are all placed so they can see you clearly, whether it is a strait line, semi-circle, etc.
  • If there is a primary deity that the shrine is dedicated to for the ritual, make sure they are center and on the high seat (placed on a object that raises them above the others). If there are none, but they are all part of the same pantheon, you may choose to have a object that represents the high seat (like a block or a pillar) that has a symbol of the head of the pantheon on it towards the top. If all else fails, use a sky warrior god of your choice and call on them to protect and oversee the space at the beginning of the ritual.
  • Your god images do not have to be fancy statues. They can be objects with sigils carved into them or simple stones that you feel resonate with them. How fancy or simple you want to go beyond that point is up to you.
  • If you are honoring a deity but you are not sure what to give as an offering, fire is the common default to use as a medium for sending prayers and it is one of the most common mediums for this found throughout Indo-European religions. However if you want to cover your bases, have a general fire offering plate for sky spirits/gods above, a bowl to represent offering pits for earth spirits/gods below, and a water vessel for water spirits/gods would work as well.
  • Any additional objects that would be used in ritual, such as bells, clothing, oracles, etc, are up to you to help you in the performance of your ritual.

So as I said before, this is the tip of an iceberg and I tried to present the information as concisely as I could. There are plenty of examples of how to establish ritual space and I will at some point write up a overview of how I approach ritual construction and the fundamentals that go into it. Until that time, feel free to check ritual structures found with other Gaulish polytheist. There is some really great work there and you can fine a good start point here. If you are looking for Gaulish terms for some of the things I have brought up in this article, you can find some of that here. I also have some coursework with ADF talking about some of these things, but there is certainly an evolution to my understanding of liturgy, so anything written before the date that this article was written may or may not align with what I have written here.

Above all things, these rituals are about you and your relationships with the spirits around and the gods who support you. Let it grow, change, and develop as you and they see fit.


2 thoughts on “Sacred Space: A Look into Gaulish Ritual Space and Practices

  1. Pingback: Home Practices and Hearth Keeping: An Overview | Nemeton Dumnonantu

  2. Pingback: Sacred Space: A Look into Gaulish Ritual Space and Practices — Nemeton Dumnonantu | Vermont Folk Troth

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