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Although an important deity throughout Europe, we know very little about Taranis. However, we do know something about how the Celts viewed his symbol, the wheel, which comes with a host of meanings and interpretations.
Who is Taranis?
Almost all ancient cultures honored the power and might of thunderstorms. The ancient Celts revered this magnificent power as a deity of sky, thunder, and lighting. Known as Taranis (pronounced tah-rah-nees), he was similar to the Greek Zeus, the Roman Jupiter, the Norse Thor, the Hindu Indra, and Chango of the African Yoruban tribe.
Represented by his sacred wheel and a thunderbolt, Taranis, also called the “Great Thunderer,” traveled at amazing speeds throughout the skies worldwide. He commanded storms and which gave protection to the entire company of gods.
The most important aspect of nature worship among many ancient cultures, including the Celts, was the movement of celestial bodies, such as the sun and moon. The wheel was seen as a physical representation of these things on earth, which fall under Taranis’s domain. The sun is life and the wheel mirrors this understanding; when it rolls, it mimics the motion of the sun crossing the sky each day.
Taranis’s name comes from the Proto-Celtic word for “thunder,” or “toranos”. Several Celtic languages reference such a word. Taranis is Gaelic for “thunder.” “Taran” has modern meanings in Welsh and Breton as “thunder.” The name Taranis has close associations to the Gaulish Ambisagrus tribe too.
In Tours, Orgon and Chester, there are dedicatory inscriptions to him as seen on stone altars. An image found from the area around Le Chatelet, France dates from the 1st to 2nd century BCE. It depicts a male figure holding a lightning bolt and a wheel, presumably to represent the sun. The lightning rod signifies war, fire and terror.
The Irish and Scottish Celts had several centers for his worship, albeit by a different name as indicated in stories. The Irish called him Tuireann and have a compelling story that connects this god of the sky with the heroic god Lugh of autumn’s first harvest. He’s also mentioned as Taran in the Cymrie Mabinogi, an important Welsh text detailing the old Celtic Gods. Both of these tales indicate how the wheel represents the sky’s movement and changing of the seasons.
This circular symbol was so important to the worship of Taranis that he was often referred to as a wheel god. Among the Celts of all the British Isles, Taranis is “Lord of the Wheel of the Seasons” and is a ruler of time. His annual ritual mating with the feminine spirit of the oak tree, or Duir/Doire displays this factor of time.
Worship of Taranis and His Wheel Around Europe
Taranis’ popularity extends far outside the normal boundaries of Celtic domain. The Gundestrup Cauldron from Denmark, believed to be Celtic in nature, dates back to the 2nd century BC and depicts various. Scholars believe Taranis is the bearded man accepting a wheel offering by a diminutive human figure. The human wears a short tunic and a bull-horned helmet. Only half of the wheel is visible but there are also human figures within the wheel itself.
Anywhere archaeologists have found Celtic culture, there is a wheel in some form of depiction and almost all images of Taranis accompany a wheel. The indications for this are on nine inscriptions of Taranis throughout Germany, Italy, Croatia, France, Hungary, and Belgium. These sacred wheels are in Ireland, Spain, Britain, across the Rhine and through the Danube too.
The wheel of Taranis is sometimes confused with the solar cross, but they are two different symbols. The solar cross is associated with the sun, while the wheel of Taranis is connected to lightning, thunder, and storms.
The Importance of the Wheel
So, although Taranis is obscure and elusive in our understanding of his reverence, it’s clear he was an important deity.
The wheel in connection to Taranis is so intrinsic there are over 150 variations found across Europe. All are different and presented in a myriad of materials, sizes, spoke numbers, and displays. There is much we can glean from studying the general importance of the wheel to Celtic culture and how it ties to Taranis.
The wheel is one of the most common objects found in Europe, from the British Isles to Czechoslovakia. There were wagon burials, rock carvings, coins, etchings, votive offerings, pendants, brooches, appliqués, figurines and sculptures of bronze or lead.
The wheel’s most crucial and initial function was for traveling and often pulled by oxen or bulls. These early wagons were invaluable as it made it convenient to travel across land. But it’s also a prominent feature at burial sites, settlements and shrines. This means the wheel was much more than a mode of transport or an ordinary, commonplace object.
One distinct feature of Celtic burials, for both men and women, was the inclusion of the wagon. Although the Greeks and other Indo Europeans valued the wheel, none of them buried their dead with wheels like the Celts did. There are wagon burials found all over Scotland and a chariot burial near Edinburgh.
The body was either inside the wagon or the wagon was inside the tomb, next to or over the body. Many of these burial wagons were in a disassembled state. We don’t know why the Celts did this, but we do know it held a higher reverence than those assembled for use among the living.
What’s even more interesting is that the construction of these wagons was not solely for funerary purposes. These came from everyday use as many burial wagons show clear signs of prior wear-and-tear. So, wagon burials may symbolize sovereignty, travel and progress into the afterlife.
This added element of wagons present during funerary rites gives the wheel a dual meaning – sun and life as well as death. Taranis’s role here is not clear, but the Celts may have viewed his wheel as an integral part of the cycles between life and death.
Appearances of Taranis’s Wheel and Its Spokes
While the spokes often represent the sun and its rays, these are an interesting and mysterious feature. There seems to be a numerological significance with a special meaning, but we really don’t know what that is.
Although we don’t have any knowledge of Celtic numerology, we can glean certain information from their Roman and Greek counterparts. The one thing we can take away from the number of spokes, though, is that it will relate to the movements of nature in some way.
The number of spokes in Taranis’ Wheel varies. It can range from four (common in funerary situations), six (common in statues) and sometimes eight (some emblems of Taranis).
Four generally represents the four elements (air, fire, water and earth), four moon phases (new, waxing, full and waning) and the four seasons (spring, summer, autumn and winter). This could translate, in terms of burial, the elements or seasons of a person’s life. However, four-spoked wheels also adorn battle gear as many are on helmets, weapons, shields and houses. This could indicate the four-spoked wheel as a protection amulet.
Eight is an international and ancient symbol of eternity. It is also the number of the holidays in the Celtic year: Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Midsummer, Lammas, and Mabon.
Taranis and his wheel are potent symbols for the ultimate, overwhelming power of the sky. He is might, force, life, season change and death. People all over Europe worshipped him, with his wheel being a prominent feature at many sacred sites and adorning many important objects. Even if you watch a storm passing by today, you can understand why the Celts worshipped this as a living god.