God’s teeth? No, that oath came about a thousand years later. By the angel!? Nope, wrong book series. (10 points if you comment and can tell me which one it’s from.) Merlin’s beard! Okay, maybe that one.
It’s tough to say by whom Guinevere and Arthur would have sworn or exactly what sort of faith they may have professed, other than it was likely influenced by both Druidism and Christianity. Of course, I make assumptions in my books to suit my fiction, but in their historical time (approximately 475-530 AD), Celtic religion encompassed a variety of influences, especially those from the Roman Empire, and beliefs varied from tribe to tribe. But here are a few generalizations we can make:
They loved nature – Did you know there were no Celtic churches? That’s because the Celts believed in worshiping in nature, rather than in man-made temples. Oak groves, stone circles and sacred springs were about as close as they got to holy structures, and those shrines usually were tended to or presided over by a Druid. (No, Merlin did not build Stonehenge; neither did the Druids. It was actually built several thousand years before the Arthurian period.) Because of their close association with nature, the Druids were believed to be able to control the weather. There was also some belief the Druids could shape shift into animal form, which was probably derived from the shamanistic practice of wearing the animal skin/horns/feathers in ritual to invoke its power, similar to Native American practice. And no, they didn’t sacrifice people on a mass scale. Possibly a few here and there, but why, when and how is up for debate.
They had a god/goddess for everything – The Celtic connection to nature and their agrarian lifestyle also influenced the way they saw their deities. They loved triple symbolism, so often their deities show up in three-fold form. For example, the Goddess is said go through a whole life cycle each year: maiden (spring), mother (summer and fall) and wise woman (winter). Likewise, the God was said to live through three phases each year: young child (late winter/spring), strong man/lover (summer/early fall), and dying old man (late fall/early winter), who would be reborn on the midwinter solstice along with the sun. (More to come on the Celtic calendar and how their holy days fit in a future post.)
So, with all these options, who you gonna call? (No, not Ghostbusters.) The answer depends on what you need. If you were a Celtic blacksmith, a woman in labor or just in need of some poetic inspiration, you’d invoke the goddess Brigid. Going into battle? Mirthas might be your man. (He’s a Roman god adopted by the Celts during the Roman occupation. There’s even some speculation that he was Arthur’s preferred god.) If a goddess is more your style, call on the Morrigan to aid your fight.
Some deities were specific to a location such as a sacred spring or holy grove (the goddess Coventina was worshiped at a spring near Hadrian’s Wall), while others were tribal deities who date back into the murky past of the pre-Roman Celts. And some were more popular and wide-spread than others, such as the goddesses Airanrhod, Branwen, Blodeuwedd, Rhiannon and Cerridwen, especially beloved in what is now Wales, or the gods Cernunnos (the Horned One), Herne (the Hunter) or Lugh (Lord of Light).
They co-existed with Christians – There’s great debate in the historical community about when Christianity came to Britain (probably sometime around 300-400 AD, but it wouldn’t rise to total prominence for a few hundred more years) and even greater debate among Arthurian scholars as to whether or not Arthur was Christian. (Most stories have him being Christian, but they were written well after Christianity became the dominant religion.) In reality, Guinevere and Arthur’s beliefs could have gone either way because that time period was one of transition where the old ways (Druidism) were dying out, but not completely dead, and the new power (Christianity) was rising, but didn’t quite have a hold. I’d love to tell you how that plays out in my books, but you’ll have to wait to read them to find out.