Taran (Taranis, Taranos, Taranuos, Taranucnus, Taranucus, Taranoou, Etirun) is a Gaulish and Brythonic god known from the writings of Julius Caesar, Strabo and Lucan. He is also knowf from eight inscriptions found in Germany, Hungary, Croatia, France and Belgium. He also figures as the character of Taran in the Cymric (Welsh) Mabinogi of Branwen ferch Llŷr. He is the Celtic thunder god, often associated with the Roman God Jupiter.

Taranis is probably one of the most well-known of the Celtic deities, mostly due to the writings of Julius Caesar, Strabo and Lucan; though the actual evidence for this deity indicates that he was far less important than suggested by the Roman commentators. Indeed, outside the work of the classical writers the evidence for this deity is scant at best.

In his De Bello Gallica (On the Gallic Wars) Julius Caesar describes a Gaulish deity whom he likens to Jupiter and of whom he says ‘held the empire of the skies’. We are left to Lucan (M. Annaeus Lucanus), however, to name this deity as Taranis. In the first book of his Pharsalia (Civil War) Lucan has this to say about the major Gaulish gods:

Teutates horrensque feris altaribus Esus

et Taranis Scythicae non mitior ara Dianae.

uos quoque, qui fortes animas belloque peremptas

Savage Teutates, Esus’ bloody shrines
and Taranis’ altar, cruel as those
loved by Diana, whom the Scythians serve;
All these destroyed in war…

Based on writings in the ninth century comment on Lucan, the Berne Scholia and descriptions in Caesar’s De Bello Gallica Taranis has been identified as the deity to whom both Julius Caesar and Strabo describe human sacrifices being offered by being burnt alive in ‘wicker men’. The Berne Scholia also describes Taranis as a ‘master of war’ and links him with the Roman deity Jupiter. However, these classical sources are all problematic. Caesar (and later Lucan) were both attempting to cast the Gauls in poor light, as a means of justifying the Gallic wars. Which is not to say that the ancient Celts did not perform human sacrifices. The so called ‘bog bodies’ of Britain and Denmank all attest to the veracity of this claim. However, there is absolutely no archaeological evidence to link the known sites of Taranis worship with cults of human sacrifice. Indeed, Lucan may have been exagerating the importance of Taranis for having never left Rome he had few sources of information about Gaulish deities to draw upon. He therefore had to rely on other Roman writers to gain what information he could.

In fact, only eight confirmed inscriptions to Taranis (or a close synonym thereof) are known and all come from northern Gaul (the dedication to Tanarus found at Chester, if it is dedicated to a god, is dedicated to a separate deity and not to Taranus as many commentators have claimed). The remaining dedications are as follows: a dedication to Taranoou at Orgon, Bouches-du-Rhône, France; dedications to Taranucnus (The Thunderer) found at Boeckingen and Godramstein (where he is assimilated with Ravinis) in Germany; a further probable inscirption to Taranucnus found at Alt Ofen, Hungary (where he is assimilated with Jupiter); a dedication to Taranucus found at Scardona, Croatia (where he is assimilated with Jupiter); a probable inscription to Taranuensis found at Thauron, Creuse in France (where he is assimilated with Jupiter Optimus Maximus); a dedication to Tarainis found at Baudeced, Belgium; and a dedication to Taranuos found at Amiens, Somme, France.

Taranis’ name is derived from the reconstructed proto-Celtic root *toranos- (Thunder). Thus Taranos’ name means ‘Thunder’ whilst forms such as Taranucnus mean ‘Thunderer’. It would seem therefore that Taranis was originally a weather deity, associated with storms and more specifically the thunder and lightning associated with such phenomena. This association with thunder and lightning probably explains his syncretization with Jupiter; though the cult of Jupiter is much broader than what we can discern of the attributes of Taranis. Indeed, Taranis may well represent one of the earliest form of Celtic deities. An elemental force of nature associated with the rumble of thunder. Only after the Roman conquest did he gain a human form and became incorporated into the cult of Jupiter.

Iconographically we have no representation which can be unambiguously attributed to Taranis. Though the so-called ‘wheel god’ (above right) is often linked to Taranis this identification is by no means certain. Indeed, this linkage is often done on the basis of the lightning bolt in the god’s right hand and the description of the wheel in his left hand as the ‘thunder wheel’. In all likelihood this wheel could just as easily be a ‘solar wheel’. In contrast, the image on the right (which is loosely based on a bronze statue from Strasbourg) shows a man wearing a Gaulish sagum (a heavy woolen coat or cloak) and who simply bears a large thunderbolt in his hand. He has no other attributes and this image would be far more fitting as that of an elemental weather deity with the coat affording protection from the rain (a fertility aspect) that generally accompanies thunderstorms.

No ancient iconography or writings that can with any certainty be ascribed to Taranis have been discovered. However, the figure of Taran (literally Thunder) is known from the Mabinogi of Branwen ferch Llŷr where he figures only in the patronymic of Gluneu (as Gluneu eil Taran [Gluneu son/descendant of Taran]) who was one of the seven men that escaped the battle between Brân and Matholwch. However, as I have previously discussed (see the entry on Pwyll) Pwyll’s epithet of Pendaran (literally ‘Chief Thunderer’) may link this hero of the Mabinogi with the thunder god. Therefore, though the links and references in extant literature are rather nebulous it does seem as if something of the cult of Taran/Taranis survived into the Middle Ages. Further evidence for the survival of the insular cult of Taranis comes from the Irish Dindshenchas; a collection of Old Irish local legends, for the most part explaining the origins of the names of places but also contains synopses of the tales of heroic and mythic figures. In this volume a passing reference is made to Etirun described as a minor thunder god of the Britons. The tirun part of the name is obviously derived from taran/taranis and the name probably represents the same deity.