Ancient Celtic Religion: Apollo, God of Sun

Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind…the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth—Joseph Campbell


Ancient Celtic Religion: Apollo, God of Sun

Historical and archaeological evidence provide both utopian and horrific images of Ancient Celtic Religion.The Celts demonstrated their spiritual kinship to nature through their artwork and reverence for sacred groves. The Ancient Druids believed the human soul was indestructible and was a continuation of a person’s existence that included all the functions of personality. Warriors kept their enemies’ heads as trophies after battle based on their belief that the skull was the temple of the soul. Possessing an enemies’ skull was the same as capturing his soul and retaining his power.

The Celtic belief in the immortal soul was similar to that of Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, who thought the soul transmigrates from one body to another (metempsychosis) and could include the bodies of animals and plants (reincarnation). Perhaps, this belief in reincarnation accounts for the Celtic mythology of shape shifting—the ability of an entity to physically transform into another being or form.

Panel on Gundstrup Cauldron

Inside Panel of Gundestrup Cauldron

There were other religious and philosophical similarities between the Celts and Greeks, both of whom were world travelers and traders. Some of the Greek fables of Hyperborea may be based on accounts from those who explored France and the British Isles. Further, there is evidence suggesting the Greek rituals of Apollo may be based on Celtic festivities to their sun god. Stonehenge was known as Apollo’s Temple in classical antiquity.

 

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

Celtic Trading Connections 

The Phoenicians traded extensively within Gaul (France) and the British Isles. They discovered Ireland when they sailed to trade with natives in Britain. Ireland was always a great place to trade and for this reason, the Roman Historian Tacitus said, “Its ports are better known for trade, and more frequented by merchants, than those of Britain.”

The Phoenicians undoubtedly imported their language, bartered their commodities, and exchanged their religious beliefs with the Celts.

Most geographical accounts of Celtic regions came from the Greeks, which the Romans later adopted. At the time of Alexander the Great, Pytheas, a citizen of the Greek colony of Massilia (Marseille, France), published accounts of his voyages entitled, “Tour of the Earth.” Commissioned by the Senate to explore the north, Pytheas landed in Britain and Ireland, the German and Scandinavian coasts, and possibly beyond Iceland.

Coastline Marseille, France

Marseille Coastline

 

In his accounts, Pytheas describes a frozen sea. The oldest Irish books refer to this as the foggy or coagulated sea. In both Greek and Celtic mythology, this northern sea is where departed souls go before they come to the icy part. The coagulated sea may refer to the contrary tides around the British Isles that could impede a ship’s travel, whirling it around and swallowing it up. These tides were formidable forces which destroyed several of Julius Caesar’s warships when he invaded Britain in 55 – 54 B.C. (see previous posts in APOLLO’S RAVEN).

Collapse White Cliffs Wall Britain

Coastal White Cliffs Near Dover; Initial Site Where Julius Caesar May Have Tried to Land


Hyperborea and Association with Apollo

In Greek mythology, Hyperboreans were a mythical people who lived beyond the North Wind. The Greeks thought Boreas, the God of the North Wind, lived in Thrace and thus, Hyperborea lay north of Thrace. Diodorus Siculus identified the region of Hyperborea as Britain, an island in the ocean no smaller than Sicily. The island was reported to be fertile and have an unusually temperate climate. Hecateaus of Abdera wrote the Hyperboreans had a ‘circular temple’ on their island that some scholars have identified as Stonehenge, also known as Apollo’s Temple since classical antiquity.

Stonehenge Britain

Stonehenge; Also Known as Apollo’s Temple

Eratosthenes said an arrow that Apollo used to slay the Cyclops was hidden among the Hyperborians in his Temple made of wings. The Hyperborian high priest, Abaris, traveled to Greece and presented the sun god’s arrow to Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher who believed the soul was immortal. It is of interest that inhabitants of the British Islands adorned themselves and their buildings with feathers, and many of them paid their rent with plumage. The Isle of Skye is in the native language called Scianach, the winged island.

Diodorus Siculus said that above all other gods, the Hyperboreans worshipped Apollo. Beyond the Gallic regions (France) to the north, the harp which was associated with Apollo was frequently played. Of particular interest was the Beltane Festival held on the eve of May, when Druids kindled prodigious fires on cairns (stacks of stones) to honor the sun god they referred to as Beal, Bealan, or the Latin name of Belenus. Near Edinburgh, there was a stone dug up with the inscription to Apollo Grannus.

Apollo-WaltersArs

Apollo, God of the Sun

During the Beltane Festival, two fires were lit side-by-side in every Celtic village. Men and beasts to be sacrificed passed between these fires, one of which was on a cairn while the other was on the ground. The purpose of the midsummer fires was to obtain the sun god’s blessings on the fruits of the earth.

It is remarkable that certain Greek feasts of Apollo were called Carnea, supposedly based on the killing of the prophet Carnus—the son of Jupiter and Eruope, and Apollo’s lover. Ancient Greeks, by their own confession, learned some of their philosophy and many of their sacred fables from the Gauls (Celts in France) and other ancient civilizations. It is highly probable they learned of the Beltane rituals either from travelers from Gaul or from citizens of the Phoenician colony of Massilia.

Even today, the Beltane Festival is wildly celebrated in certain locations on the British Isles.

 

Celtic Round House

Celtic Round House for Assembly


Immortal Soul

As discussed above, Abaris was a legendary Hyperborean healer, seer, and priest of Apollo. He traveled over Greece and into Italy where he discussed philosophy with Pythagoras and presented him with Apollo’s sacred arrow. It has been suggested by scholars that the doctrine of transmigration taught by Pythagoras may have actually been the Druidic philosophy that he learned from Abaris.

Pythagoras believed the soul was immortal and went through a series of reincarnations. He believed humans could reincarnate into either animals or plant forms. Pythagoras was reported to have said, “Once, they say, he was passing by when a puppy was being whipped, and he took pity and said: ‘Stop, do not beat it; it is the soul of a friend that I recognized when I heard it [i.e., the soul’s voice.]’” Obviously, Pythagoras believed his friend’s soul was actually doing the yelping.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda Gundestrup Cauldron

Diodorus Siculus, a 1st Century Greek historian, wrote: “The Druids studied the nature of moral philosophy, asserting the human soul is indestructible, and also the universe, but that some time or other, fire and water will prevail.”

According to Caesar, the bravery of the Celts sprang from their lack of fear of death, the result of their belief that the soul does not die. Certainly, the abundant evidence of grave goods is ample proof of faith in the existence of an afterlife. The Druids taught souls move between this world and the world of the dead—the Otherworld. Death in the physical world results in a soul moving to the Otherworld, whereas death in the Otherworld brings a soul back to this world.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Celt

Cult of the Head

There is a prevalence of images of the human head at cult sites in virtually all regions believed to have been inhabited by the Celts. Similar to the Greek world, the Celts viewed humans as consisting of a body, soul, and spirit; the world they inhabited as earth, sea, and area; the divisions of nature as animal, vegetable, and mineral; the cardinal colors as red, yellow and blue and so forth.

The Celts venerated the human head above all else because it was the temple of the soul—the center of emotions as well as of life itself and a symbol of divinity and the powers of the Otherworld, the world of the spirits. To possess the enemy’s head was to possess his soul. As with so many aspects of the warrior’s life, the taking of an opponent’s head in battle, preferably by single combat, had a mystical significance. The head of the fallen enemy became an important prestige object for the warrior, as it revealed a deep bond between the victor and the vanquished.

The importance and extent of the cult of the severed head among the Celts is demonstrated by their display in shrines, either mounted in stonework as at La Roquepertuse in southern Gaul (France), or on wooden poles at the Bredon hill fort in western Britain. In both instances the heads were set up at the entrances. Perhaps the souls of these unfortunate warriors were now being used to provide symbolic protection for these fortresses.

 

Stonework at La Roquepertuse Cult of Head

La Roquepertuse Doorway

In Welsh and Irish myth, the severed head is believed to be imbued with supernatural power. When Bendigeitfran, one of the principal heroes in the cycle of Welsh legends called the Mabinogion is mortally wounded in battle, he commands his own men to cut off his head and bury it in London facing the east to guard Britain again foreign invasion. There are many other examples of talking heads of slain heroes found in Celtic mythology.

Conclusions

There are universal beliefs in the Ancient Celtic Religion which are similar to other religions, most notably the Greeks. Some of these similarities may be result of these ancient civilizations interacting with each other and adopting each other’s philosophies and gods. Based on Greek accounts, some of their mythology and gods (e.g. Apollo) may have been adopted from the Celts in addition to other ancient civilizations such as Egypt.

The next post will discuss the pantheon of Celtic gods and their association to Greek and Romans Gods.

References

  1. John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day; 2005; Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
  2. Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
  3. Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids, 1995William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI.
  4. Delaney, Frank, The Celts (London, 1986)
  5. John Toland, A Critical History of the Celtic Religion and Learning; 2013; AlbaCraft Publishing, Scotland.
  6. Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior: 300 BC — AD 100; 2001. Osprey Publishing LTD., Westminster, MD, USA.
  7. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2008Bollingen Series IVII, Third Edition; New World Library, Novato, CA

Celtic Druid History: Magic

Memories of animal envoys still must sleep, somehow, within us; for they wake a little and stir when we venture into the wilderness. They wake in terror to thunder. And again they wake, with a sense of recognition, when we enter any one of those great painted caves. Whatever the inward darkness may have been to which the shamans of those caves descended in their trances, the same must lie within ourselves, nightly visited in sleep.

– Joseph Campbell, The Way of the Animal Powers

Introduction

The word ‘Celtic’ conjures images of magic, rituals, and spells based on the rich mythology of a people who at one time spread from the British Isles across continental Europe to Russia and Turkey. The history of the Celts has been derived, in part, from their symbolic lore. An example is the ‘Arthurian’ myth which provides insight into how the Celtic mind works. For Arthur is the myth of a king with a predestined envoy, the myth of the sleeping man who will wake to save the world, and the myth of a cuckold king who must share his sovereignty with his people in the shape of the queen’s lover.

To explore the Celtic religion from its past requires a wand to piece it together. The original Celtic rites that were maintained through oral traditions have been lost. Historical accounts and archaeological evidence present both horrific and awe-inspiring images of Celtic religion.

On one hand, the Celts demonstrated a spiritual kinship to nature and love for the Mother Goddess which is based on the Celtic penchant for sacred groves.

Cork Oak Tree at Arundel Castle and Gardens

Cork Oak Tree; ‘Druid’ derived from ‘dru-wid’ — “Oak Knowledge.”

 

Whereas, there is evidence that Celts sacrificed humans in their ceremonies.

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

Human Sacrifice to Teutates, God of War Gundestrup Cauldron

Although Irish Christian monks wrote down the original Celtic legends based on oral traditions, their manuscripts were heavily redacted and rewritten in accordance with their beliefs. The monastic scribes rejected the notion that any pagan god in the legends was worthy of worship and, thus, they were turned into heroes with magical powers which echo their one-time divinity.

Thus, the Irish sources, while offering a wealth of mythology, provide no direct evidence for the Celtic religion. In one version of The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the scribe distanced himself from the account by saying “I, who have written out of this history, or more properly fiction, for some things are diabolical impositions, some are poetical inventions, some have a semblance of truth, and some are meant to be the entertainment of fools.”

Magical powers attributed to Druids in Celtic literature and historical accounts include: control the elements, prophesy, heal, cause invisibility, shape shift, levitate, curse the ungodly, and perform other forms of magic.

Celtic Druid History: Magic

In Celtic literature and tradition, Druids have been popularly referred as magicians—wizards possessing supernatural powers. By the time of the advent of Christianity in both Ireland and Britain, Druids were identified by the word magi, a name used for the priests of Ancient Persia who reputedly had power over supernatural entities.

The Roman historian, Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD), referred to Druids as the magi and said, “Even today Britain is still spell bound by magic, and performs its rites with so much ritual that she might almost seem to be source of Persian customs.”

In Irish and Welsh literature, there is common reference to the Druid as a wielder of magical powers. Druids could influence the course of events or control nature. Early Celtic Christian writers who believed in Druidic magic gave these supernatural powers to saints in their church.

Below is a summary of these  magical powers.

Control Forces of Nature

Druids could summon magical fog and storms to destroy or disperse their enemies. Broichán, the chief Druid of the Pictish King Bruide, raised a terrific storm to stop Colmcille from crossing Loch Ness. The great magician Mathgen summoned the mountains to crush the enemy by proclaiming: “Through my power I can throw down all the mountains of Ireland on the Fomor, until their tops will be rolling on the ground. And the twelve chief mountains of Ireland will bring you their help and will fight for you.”

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Depiction of Celtic Warrior & Irish God Dagda, Protector of Tribe (Gundestrup Cauldron)

Muirchú says the Druids of Laoghaire sent heavy snowfalls and darkness to impede St. Patrick’s approach to Tara. In the Life of St Moling, Mothairén conjured up a fog to protect the Christian missionaries from their enemies. These are examples of Christian saints taking over the power of the Druids.

Cloak of Invisibility

The Druids could also produce a cloak of invisibility to protect them from their enemies. In an Irish version of the Aeneid, Venus puts such a cloak around the hero Ulysses to protect him entering the city of the Phaeacians.

The concept of this mantle of protection continued into Christianity. When the mother of St. Finnchua was being pursued by a pagan king, she invoked the mantle of protection, a cloak or a fog of darkness, so that she might escape.

Druidic Wand

Some texts refer to the Druidic wand that consists of a branch on which little tinkling bells hung. When Sencha, the chief bard of Ulster, waved his hand, the roar of battle hushed.

Celtic Woman Warrior Summons Raven Spirit

Celtic Druidess Warrior Summoning Raven Spirit

Shape Shifting

Shape shifting was another gift ascribed to Druids. When Fer Fidail, a Druid, carried off a maiden, he did so by assuming the form of a woman. Humans could also be turned into animals. Fer Doirche changed the beautiful Sibh into a deer when she rejected his love. The female Druid, Dalb, changed three men and their wives into swine and Aiofe, wife of Lir, changed her step-children into swans.

Raven Protecting Tower of London

Raven Watching Over Tower of London

Druidic Sleep

Bobd, suspecting his daughter of lying, casts her into a Druidic sleep, similar to hypnosis, so she would reveal the truth. A drink of oblivion is another tool of the Druids that makes people forget even their closest friends and loves.

To be Continued

In the next posts, Druidic dark rituals, philosophy, and pantheon of will be explored.

References:

Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids; 1995; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI.
John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers; Printed in USA by First Anchor Books Edition, NY; 1991.

Celtic Druid History: Legacy and Influence


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“One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” – Joseph Campbell.

Celtic Druid History: Legacy and Influence

Previous posts in APOLLO’S  RAVEN discussed Boudica’s revolt in 60-61 AD. She was probably the most famous Celtic warrior queen who led men and women warriors in their last major revolt against the Romans in Britain. Not only was she a charismatic leader, but she was also a druidess who summoned the Goddess of  War, Andraste, to give her victory. Her spiritual connection and the uniting forces of the Druids were important factors which inspired  warriors who had a penchant for individual glory to unite in this rebellion.

This article will explore the Druid’s influential role in the Celtic culture and their legacy of being magicians, judges, doctors, and diviners who created fear in Ancient Rome.

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

 

Introduction

Unfortunately, most historical accounts of Druids are biased through the foreign eyes of Greek and Roman historians. Irish and Welsh monks who wrote down Celtic mythology, which were based on oral traditions, probably altered some of the stories to be more in line with their Christian beliefs.

Although Rome had precedence for tolerating  religions in their conquered regions, Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD) wrote that under Tiberius the Druids were suppressed—along with diviners and physicians—by a decree of the Senate. Claudius forbade their rites completely in AD 54. Druids were alleged to have performed human sacrifice, a practice abhorrent to the Romans. Pliny the Elder wrote: “It is beyond calculation how great is the debt owed to the Romans, who swept away the monstrous rites, in which to kill a man was the highest religious duty and for him to be eaten a passport to health.”

The more likely reason for the Roman decrees was the Druids’ influence on various tribes to organize revolt and to foster cultural beliefs that were contradictory to the monolithic structure of the patriarchal empire. The Romans looked upon women as bearers of children and objects of pleasure, while the Druid included women in their political and religious life. The Druids were the intelligentsia of the Celtic tribes who could have more power than kings in making decisions.

Despite Roman efforts to suppress the Druids’ practices, Celtic spiritual beliefs thrived in the form of mythical tales of chivalry, magic, and pantheon of gods and goddesses that showed their connection to nature and their profound philosophy that souls resurrect into other living beings. Their artwork and metal works reflect their philosophy that the physical and spiritual worlds interconnect, as shown in the imagery of a plant’s tendril gently stranding on itself, then spinning out into a pattern of whorls and fanciful animal shapes.

Two-headed Celtic Gold Clasp

Two-headed Celtic Gold Clasp

Through Greek Eyes

Strabo, a Greek geographer (64 BC – 44AD), classified three classes of men and women who held special honor in the Celtic culture: the Bards, the Vates, and the Druids. The Bards were singers and poets while the Vates interpreted sacrificial omens. The Druids studied the science of nature and moral philosophy. Strabo believed the Greek word Druidae was a cognate of the Greek drus, ‘an oak’.  Some etymologists believed the word derived from the word roots drui-wid—’oak knowledge” — the wid meaning ‘to know’ or ‘to see’.

Cork Oak Tree Arundel

Cork Oak Tree

Druids were believed to be the most just of men and were therefore entrusted with making decisions affecting either individuals or the public, often arbitrating between opponents in war. Druids pronounced that men’s souls and the universe are indestructible, although at times fire or water temporarily prevailed.

Diodorus Siculus (60 BC – 21 BC), a Greek historian, also used the same classification as Strabo’s, pointing out the Druids were held in highest esteem. The Ovates foretold the future by the flight or cries of birds and slaughter of sacred animals.

Soaring Raven

Eagle’s Flight

Through Roman Eyes

Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC), who had personal dealings with Celts in his conquest of Gaul, said there was three classes: the intellectuals (Druids), the military caste (Equites), and the common people (Plebs). Druids officiated at the worship of the gods, regulated public and private sacrifices, and gave  rulings on all religious questions. Young people sought their instruction, as they were held in great honor by all of the people.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

The Druids were ruled under one head, whom they held in highest respect. On his death, another outstanding individual replaced him if there was consensus. If not, an election would be held to select the head or the final choice would be left to the winner of a final fight. Druids served as judges in most disputes, whether  between tribes or between individuals, and adjudicated any compensation to be paid in final judgments. Their decisions were final in all public and private matters. Anyone failing to accept their decision was banned from taking part in any sacrifice—the heaviest punishment that could be inflicted.

Celtic Round House

Celtic Round House for Assembly

Caesar asserted Druid doctrine was exported from Britain into Gaul. The Druids believed their religion forbade them to commit their teachings to writing as these could not be made public. Students had to memorize volumes of verse—many of them spending twenty years at their studies. It should be noted the Celts maintained written public and private accounts by using the Greek and Latin alphabets.

The most profound philosophy that Caesar highlighted was the belief that the soul does not perish, but after death passes from one body to another. According to him, the bravery of the Celts sprang from their lack of fear of death, the result of their belief that the soul does not die but is reincarnated after death.

Celtic Wooden Shield

Ancient Celtic Shield

Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD), who came from a family of Roman colonists in Gaul, described the Druids as natural scientists, doctors of medicine, and magicians. Perhaps it was Pliny’s fascination with magic that he recounted the anguinam, the ‘Druid’s eggs’ or ‘serpent’s eggs’. He said he possessed one of these eggs that looked like a crystal about the size of a moderately sized apple. The eggs were reportedly made by hissing snakes put together, the foam from their mouths producing a viscous slime which became a ball when tossed in the air and caught by a Druid who then used it to counteract incantations. The egg is a powerful image used in Celtic and other mythology.

To be Continued

The next posts will further explore Celtic mythology and religious believes.

References:

Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids; Published in USA by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI; 1995.

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2005.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers; Printed in USA by First Anchor Books Edition, NY; 1991.

Celtic Heroines: Last Stand of Boudica


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I thank thee, Andraste, and call upon thee as woman speaking to woman. I pray thee for victory, preservation of life, and liberty against men insolent, unjust, insatiable, and impious.”– Boudica’s prayer for victory to the goddess of war

Introduction

In 60-61 AD, one of the greatest Celtic heroines, Boudica, reportedly led between 130,000 to 230,000 men and women warriors in the last major revolt against the Romans in Britain. Her ability to unite her people in this rebellion was remarkable considering the destabilizing Celtic penchant for individual glory that was evidenced in the fall of Celtic Europe to Roman expansion.

Previous posts describe Boudica’s initial victories in which the cities of Camulodunum (Colchester), Londonium (London), and Verulamium (St. Albans) were razed to the ground on her orders. Boudica’s outrages were precipitated by the Romans’ brutal treatment of native Britons and the destruction of the druidic stronghold at Mona (now Anglesey) in present-day Wales under the command of Governor Caius Seutonius Paulinus.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

Destruction of Druidic Priesthood

The ultimate ambition of the newly appointed governor, Paulinus, was to be elevated in the eyes of Emperor Nero for subduing the mutinous Britons. He resolved to destroy the druidic priesthood who exerted their power from Mona over the tribes occupying Wales. The druids may have been the most important political factor for unifying the Britons, for they held the secrets of the gods and the power of magic.

In order to approach Mona’s shore, Governor Paulinus ordered a number of flat-bottomed boats to carry his infantry while his mounted cavalry waded over the shallows. The practice of bearing arms was common among British women and they were present in the final battle against Paulinus. These women and fanatic druids used psychological tactics such as screeching, dancing wildly, and pulling at their faces, frightening the Romans enough to hold them off for a time. Nonetheless, the Romans eventually slaughtered the Britons and leveled their religious groves and shrines to the ground.

As Paulinus arranged for the security the island, he received intelligence that Britain had revolted.

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Boudica’s Last Stand

When Paulinus reached Londonium, he determined it would be hopeless to defend the inhabitants and thus abandoned the city. The Roman historian Tacitus said: “All those left behind were butchered. The Britons took no prisoners, nor did they consider the money they could get for selling slaves; it was the sword, gibbet, fire and cross (caedes, patibula, ignes, cruces).”

Boudica then sacked Verulamium, a town occupied by Catuvellauni who were loyal to Rome. A black ash layer at St. Albans which was discovered by archaeologists confirms the Roman written record.

Verulamium City Wall Remains

Verulamium Excavations Ancient Roman City Wall

According to Cassius Dio, a 2nd Century Roman historian, Boudica subjected captives “to atrocities which were done to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behavior, not only in all their other sacred places, but particularly in the grove of Andante. This was their name for Victory, and they regarded her with most exceptional reverence.”

With less than 10,000 men, Paulinus only had time to find a suitable place to fight the final battle on his terms. For this purpose, he chose a location encircled with woods, narrow at the entrance, and sheltered in the rear by a thick forest. Boudica’s massive army had to approach the Romans at the front of an open plain. The location is conjectured to be the present-day Mancetter about 100 miles northwest of London.

In the account by Tacitus, Boudica, in a chariot with her daughters, drove among the ranks to embolden her people with the following words: “This is not the first time the Britons have been led to battle by a woman. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed: the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, or live in bondage.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

When the battle began, the Roman’s narrow line stood fast as the Britons rushed toward them, hurling their weapons. The legionnaires then moved together as one unit and hurled 6,000 – 7,000 javelins, followed by a second round. When Boudica’s front line fell, her remaining warriors had to climb over dead bodies or carry the stricken forward for the final assault. The Romans formed a wedge and pushed their shields forward, crushing Celtic warriors together so they could not use their long swords. The cavalry cut down any Briton who broke and ran.

After suffering heavy casualties in the long engagement, the remaining Britons took flight, but wagons which carried their families obstructed the escape. What followed was a horrible slaughter. No Briton was spared regardless of age or sex. Tacitus reported that 80,000 Britons were put to the sword while the Romans lost about 400 men—a number most likely exaggerated.

After her defeat, Boudica either died of illness or poisoned herself.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Celt

Aftermath of Revolt

Reinforcements from northern Europe had to be sent to bolster Paulinus in Britain, which gives some indication that the Roman losses were substantial. The wrath and fury of Paulinus against the Britons were said to be sanctified by Mars Ultor, the Roman god of vengeance. Romans troops seized and destroyed storehouses and standing crops belonging to various tribes, leading to widespread famine.

Celtic Storehouse for Grains

Celtic Storehouse for Grains

Government officials in Britain became disgruntled with Paulinus for his handling of the crisis that created so much havoc. There had rarely been such a revolt of such magnitude and ferocity recorded in the Roman annals. Thus, the Roman government reversed its policy towards Britain and replaced Paulinus with another governor. Military action was replaced with tact and diplomacy to calm the Celtic rulers.

One of the greatest ironies of this revolt is the Brigantes Celtic queen, Cartimandua, flourished with more wealth and power as rewards for her loyalty to Rome. If she had joined forces with Boudica, it is unlikely Paulinus would have survived the war on two fronts.

In future posts, the Celtic druidic priesthood and the Celtic religious beliefs will be further discussed.

References:

Graham Webster, Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome AD AD 60; Reprinted 2004 by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York.

Cassius Dio: The Neronian Revolt of the Iceni under Suetonius Paullinus; Book LXII, Chapters 1-12 (AD 61)

Description by Tacitus of the Rebellion of Boudica (AD 60-61) [from the Annual by Tacitus (AD110-120, Box XIV]; Athena Review Vol. 1, No. 1.

Celtic Heroines: Boudica Revolt Against Romans


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“Behold the proud display of warlike spirits, and consider the motives for which we draw the avenging sword. On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory. There is no alternative. Though a woman, my resolution is fixed; the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, and live in bondage.”–Boudica’s speech to her army; recorded by Tacitus

Introduction

In 60-61 AD, the Romans faced their most fierce vengeance in a revolt led by Boudica, the best known Celtic warrior queen in Britain. A formidable woman of high intelligence, Boudica assembled some 120,000 men and women warriors for her rebellion. Her initial battles with the Romans almost succeeded in driving them out of Britain. The best-known accounts of this revolt were documented by the Roman historians Tacitus in 1st century and Cassius Dio in the 2nd century.

Dio Cassius described the Iceni queen as “very tall in stature, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of an eye most fierce. Around her neck was a large golden torc. She wore a tunic of diverse colors which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. She grasped a spear to terrify all beholders.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

Events Leading to Revolt

Boudica’s husband, Prasutugus, had during his long reign amassed considerable wealth as the king of the Iceni. Like the Brigantes who were ruled by another warrior queen, Cartimandua, the Iceni had formed an alliance with the Romans that allowed them prosperity and a good measure of independence. Before his death in 60 AD, King Prasutugus bequeathed half of his estate to Rome hoping the gesture would prove his fealty and appease Emperor Nero. The other half was willed to Boudica and their daughters.

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

However, Nero would not settle for just half when he could have it all—especially if such riches belonged to a mere woman. His subordinates seized the king’s estate and annexed the Iceni territory, reducing its inhabitants to slavery. When Boudica vehemently protested the injustice, Roman soldiers flogged her and raped her two daughters. These proud royal women were deprived of their positions which had been transmitted to them by their ancestors.

Enraged, Boudica took command of her Iceni warriors and joined forces with the Trinovantes, a neighboring state that refused crouching to Roman bondage. In secret councils, the Celtic leaders vowed to stand against the Roman Empire in the cause of liberty. Tacitus quoted Boudica as saying, “I am not fighting for my kingdom and wealth. I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, bruised body, and my outraged daughters.”

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

What ignited the Trinovantes to ally with Boudica was the vile conduct of Roman veterans who had no compunction for driving the natives from their homes and treating them with cruelty and oppression. At Camulodunum (Colchester) a temple was built to honor Claudius—a symbol of eternal slavery to the Britons.

In an account by Cassius Dio, Boudica told her followers to accept some of the blame for allowing themselves to be manipulated by the Romans prior to their invasion in 43 AD. “But to speak the plain truth, it is we who have made ourselves responsible for all these evils, in that we allowed them to set foot on the island in the first place instead of expelling them an once as we did their famous Julius Caesar, – yes, and in that we did not deal with them while they were still far away under Augustus and with Gaius Caligula.”

Claudius Bronze Head

Claudius Bonze Head

Destruction of Camulodunum

Tacitus wrote of several omens that foretold the destruction of the Roman capital of Camulodunum. One omen was the statue of the goddess of Victory in the city fell off its base and landed face-down. After this event, women in ecstasy rushed among the people and screamed the Romans would soon meet their doom. Another omen was the image of the colony in ruins seen in the transparent water near the mouth of the Thames. These omens set the stage for inciting the Britons to revolt.

Further, the Roman provincial governor, Seutonius Paulinus, was preoccupied with destroying the druidic power at Mona (Anglesey).

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Suetonius Paulinus Statue

Fearing the crisis at Camulodunum could erupt into a rebellion, Roman veterans requested reinforcements from Catus Decianus, the procurator of the province, to defend their city. The procurator only spared two hundred men to quash the uprising. The Romans had hoped to make their stand at the fortified temple of Claudius. However, Boudica’s army demolished the unguarded city, besieging the last defenders in the temple for two days before it fell. Archaeologists have shown that the city was methodically laid to waste with fire and sword.

The ninth Roman legion was sent to relieve the city. Before battling these military forces, Boudica offered a hare to the war goddess, Andastre. Then the Britons rushed into battle and annihilated the Roman army.

Counterattack by Seutonius

Suetonius marched back through Britain as far as Londonium (London), the center for trade and commerce. He had counted on Boudica attacking this settlement, but she instead moved twenty miles north to Verulamium (St. Albans) which her army sacked.

Verulamium City Wall Remains

Verulamium Excavations Ancient Roman City Wall

Meanwhile, Seutonius fortified his forces with the fourteenth legion and auxiliaries from adjacent stations, and drafted men of fighting age. He left Londonium undefended despite the inhabitants’ pleas to stay so he could confront Boudica. However, she attacked the defenseless Londonium, determined to exact her revenge on the Romanized citizens.

Tacitus wrote, “They [Boudica and her warriors] wasted no time in getting down to the bloody business of hanging, burning, and crucifying.”

To be Continued

The warrior queen then turned her attention to Seutonius, tracking him down north of London. The next post will detail the final battle between Boudica and Seutonius.

References:

Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Ph.D., Warrior Women: An Archaeologist’s Search for History Hidden Heroines; 2002; Warner Books, Inc., New York.

Cassius Dio: The Neronian Revolt of the Iceni under Suetonius Paullinus; Book LXII, Chapters 1-12 (AD 61)

Description by Tacitus of the Rebellion of Boudica (AD 60-61) [from the Annual by Tacitus (AD 110-120), Book XIV]; Athena Review Vol. 1, No. 1.

Celtic Heroines: Backdrop for Boudica’s Revolt


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“You have learned by actual experience how different freedom is from slavery…how much better is poverty with no master than wealth with slavery.”–Boudica’s Speech to Followers, as recorded by Cassius Dio


Introduction

Although the highest political authority for the Celtic Society was often vested in males, women occasionally became ruling queens and military leaders. The practice of bearing arms was relatively common among women. Tacticus, the first-century Roman historian, wrote the Britons, “are used to women commanders in war.”

Boudica was the best known warrior queen in Britain. A Briton of royal family and high intelligence, she assembled some 120,000 men and women warriors for her revolt. She was one of the most formidable opponents the Romans faced in their history. Dio Cassius, more than a century later, described the Iceni queen as “very tall in stature, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of an eye most fierce, harsh in voice…and with a mass of bright red hair falling to her hips.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

To better understand the reasons for the ferocity of her vengeance, below is a backdrop of Roman atrocities that set the stage for Boudica’s revolt, beginning in Gaul and spilling into Britain.

Caesar’s Decimation of Gaul

In first-century BC, the heartland of the great Celtic culture was Gaul (modern day France). The Roman conquest and downfall of Gaul is detailed in accounts of Julius Caesar. By any standards, the campaign in Gaul was an appalling holocaust of the Celtic people. In 60 BC, Gaul probably had some six million inhabitants. Ten years later, 1 million had been killed and another 1 million sold into slavery, a scale of oppression comparable to Hitler in the Second World War.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

The primary motivation for Caesar’s attacking Gaul was to enhance his own position in the Roman Republic and to amass slaves whom he could sell to clear his heavy debts. One tactic he often used was to ally with the Celtic kings under the guise of helping them defend their homelands from invading Germanians or other Celtic tribes. Needless to say, his ultimate goal was to steal their lands so he could embellish his reputation and enrich himself in advance of taking ultimate power in Rome.

Caesar took pleasure in chronicling the ferocity of his conquest, including:

  • Hundreds of thousands of deaths among the Helvetii
  • Massacre of all elders of the Veniti
  • Virtual destruction of the Nervii
  • Sale of 53,000 Atuatuci as slaves in a single auction
Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Gaul

Many of these Gallic people escaped to southeast Britain, but the remainder were eventually acculturated and assimilated into the Roman Empire. It is likely Latin supplanted Gaulish as the dominant language in the core areas of Gaul within a century of the conquest.

However, the Britons would not go down as easily.

Ancient Roman Ship Frieze

Roman Ship Image on Frieze


Roman Conquest of Britain

The initial Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD under Emperor Claudius met little resistance, in part, due to alliances Rome had made with powerful Celtic rulers. The situation quickly changed in 48-54 AD when the Romans fought Caratacus, a leader who used guerrilla tactics in the western frontier.

Richborough Roman Fort Ruins in Britain

Richborough Fort, Site of Roman Landing in Invasion of Britain in 43 AD

For the Britons, the initial conquest was traumatic. Those who had initially resisted the first invasion were dead, enslaved, or silently seething in anguish. Many of those who had first welcomed Rome now faced the realities of brutal power and corrupt monetary system. The few British nobles who had initially benefited lost their wealth to avaricious traders and touts who swarmed into the country.

In essence, the Britons were not going to accept the Roman way of life.They bitterly resented the Roman bureaucrats who collected taxes in onerous ways. Lands were given to former Roman soldiers who had been brutalized by the harsh army discipline.They treated the natives with total contempt, particularly at Camulodunum (modern day Colchester). Everything in Britain was there for Roman pickings.

Ancient Roman Light House Dover Cliffs

Roman Light House Dover Cliffs

The courage of the rebellious Caratacus encouraged the downtrodden from the various tribes to unite with a new sense of purpose. The powerful druids, Celtic priests, now began to exert their powers to ferment and organize a resistance movement over the whole of Britain.

Advance into Wales

Emperor Claudius and his advisers probably had second thoughts about staying in Britain, as the ease of the initial phase of the conquest dramatically reversed by a wave of savage reaction in the western frontier, with heavy Roman loses. Claudius became woefully indecisive on whether to stay in Britain toward the end of his reign.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

The Roman indecision about what to do with Britain changed when Nero, at the age of seventeen, became the emperor in 54 AD. In 57 AD, he and his advisers decided to conquer and hold the western frontier of Britain now known as Wales. This decision may have been due to the discovery of gold in central Wales, silver in northern Wales, and copper on the Island of Anglesey.

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse for Popular Assembly in Wales

In 59 AD, Gaius Suetonius Paullinus, a hard uncompromising general, totally lacking the skills needed for a diplomat, was assigned as governor of Britain. His mission was to destroy the druidic power at Anglesey and to conquer Wales. The decision ignited a firestorm that brought ruin upon the Romans. The fact that the leader of the revolt was a woman caused the Romans the greatest shame, as they almost lost the isle of Britain.

To be Continued

The next series posts will detail major events leading up to and during the Boudica’s revolt.

References:

Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Ph.D., Warrior Women: An Archaeologist’s Search for History Hidden Heroines; 2002; Warner Books, Inc., New York.

Cassius Dio: The Neronian Revolt of the Iceni under Suetonius Paullinus; Book LXII, Chapters 1-12 (AD 61)

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day; 2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

Celtic Heroines: Golden Age of Warriors and Queens

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly know. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path…And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all of the world.”—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Introduction

The epic historical fantasy, APOLLO’S RAVEN, is the first novel in the Spirit Warrior Chronicles set in 1st Century Britain and Rome. The primary character is Catrin, a Canatiaci warrior princess in southeast Britain. Not only is she trained as a warrior, but she uses raven mystical powers to help her parents defend their kingdom against a rival tribal king and her half-brother. She meets the great-grandson of Marc Antony, Marcellus, when he accompanies his father, a Roman senator, to arbitrate a settlement between the rival tribal kingdoms. Catrin and Marcellus bridge their cultural differences and form an unlikely friendship that develops into a deeper relationship which could threaten the political powers in Britain and Rome.

Celtic Spiritual Warrior

Catrin, Celtic Spirit Warrior

This unpublished novel is inspired by historical accounts and mythology of Celtic heroines who had significant roles as warriors, rulers, and spiritual advisers in the Celtic society. Celtic women were distinctly different from their Greek and Roman counterparts, as they had more liberty, legal rights, and status. This may be due, in part, because females often fended for themselves at home while their menfolk plundered, invaded, or served as mercenaries in foreign lands. Ancient classical historians also provided accounts that women incited, participated, and led battles.

Celtic Heroine Warriors 

Classical writers described Celtic females as not only strong and courageous warriors, but they were beautiful with comely bodies. Classical writer Diodorus wrote Celtic women were “nearly as tall as the men, whom they rivaled in courage.”

Roman historian Marcus Borealis further elaborated: “The women of the Celtic tribes are bigger and stronger than our Roman women. This is most likely due to their natures as well as their peculiar fondness for all things martial and robust. The flaxen haired maidens of the north are trained in sports and war while our gentle ladies are content to do their womanly duties and thus are less powerful than most young girls from Gaul and the hinterlands.”

Celtic Woman Warrior Prepares for Battle

Celtic Woman Warrior Prepares for Battle

Ammianus Marcellinus wrote a lively description of Celtic woman in battle as follows: “…a whole band of foreigners will be unable to cope with one [Celt] in a fight if he calls on his wife, stronger than he by far and with flashing eyes; least of all when she swells her neck and gnashes her teeth, and poising her huge white arms, begins to rain blows mingled with kicks like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult.”

Celtic Spiritual Warrior

Celtic woman warrior in sword fight

Though men usually held the highest political authority, it was not uncommon for women to rule as queens and military commanders. The 1st-century Roman historian Tacitus wrote the Britons “are used to women commanders in war,” and offered detailed reports on the exploits of two warrior queens—Cartimandua and Boudicca.

Celtic Heroine Queens

The Sleek Pony

Cartimandua, known as the sleek pony, was queen of the Brigantes, a vast tribal confederation in north-central Britain. Although Cartimandua ruled with her husband, Venutius, she held the real power to the kingdom. When the Romans invaded in 43 AD, both Cartimandua and Venutius realized the political advantages of siding with the aggressors and thus their kingdom because a thriving Roman client state around 50 AD.

However, Cartimandua lost popularity among her subjects when she betrayed the famous rebel leader Caratacus, turning him over to the Romans after he had sought asylum in her court. Her power eroded when she divorced Venutius and then married his armor bearer who she made the new king. Her actions prompted a civil war with her former husband, the Romans entering the fray and helping her to defeat Venutius in 71 AD. Though she may not have been viewed favorably in history, she still nonetheless was a powerful leader.

Celtic Woman Warrior with Sword

Celtic Woman Warrior with Sword

Boudica

Boudica was a charismatic warrior queen who united several British tribes to drive the Romans out of Britain in 61 AD. A bronze statue of Boudica driving her chariot is prominently displayed on the bank of the Thames (London) in honor of her valiant attempt to overcome her oppressors. Roman historian Dio Cassius described her as “very tall in stature, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, harsh in voice…and with a great mass of bright red hair falling to her hips.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

Like the Brigantes, the Iceni had formed an alliance with the Romans that at first gave them prosperity and independence. That changed when her husband, King Prasutagus, died in 60 AD and she became the leader of the Iceni. He willed half of his personal estate to Rome in the hope the gesture would demonstrate his fealty and appease the Roman Nero. The other half was bequeathed to Boudica.

But Nero would not settle for half the fortune—particularly to a mere woman. He ordered his subordinates to seize Boudica’s estate and annex the Iceni territory. When Boudica protested, the Roman soldiers flogged the queen and raped her two teenage daughters.

But the Romans would soon face her fury. The details of this rebellion will be provided in the next post.

References

Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Ph.D., Warrior Women: An Archaeologist’s Search for History Hidden Heroines; 2002; Warner Books, Inc., New York.

Cassius Dio: The Neronian Revolt of the Iceni under Suetonius Paullinus; Book LXII, Chapters 1-12 (AD 61)

Ammianus Marcellinus: The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus, published in Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1935; Book XV, 12 The Manners and Customs of the Gauls.

Golden Age of Celts: Status Built by Battle or Feast


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The whole race [Celts] is made for war. High-spirited and quick to battle.
— Strabo, Greek Historian

GOLDEN AGE OF CELTS

Status-Building in Battle

During the Golden Age of the Celts (Le Tène Period), cattle thievery, slave raiding, and vendettas between clans and tribes formed the basis of low-intensity warfare that permeated the Celtic society. Such conflicts were a starting point for a young warrior to demonstrate his bravery and skills at weapon-handling. But in a society that took personal courage for granted, something more was required to establish a reputation.

One way was to serve as a mercenary in many of the armies during the classical period. Renowned Celtic mercenaries served Hannibal during his invasion of Italy during the Second Punic War that helped establish Rome’s image of Celts as fierce warriors. They also fought in the armies of Syracuse and the successor kingdoms that followed the break-up of Alexander’s empire in Egypt.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Gaul

A distinct group of Celtic mercenaries called the Gaesatae joined the Cisalpine Gauls in the battle of Telemon against the Romans. These mercenaries were outside the normal social structure of the clan and tribes. The Celtic word geissi—bonds, taboos, or sacred rule of conduct—suggests these warriors had a strong spiritual aspect to their life, which will be further examined in later posts. It was the custom of Gaesatae to fight naked in battle which could be interpreted as a ritual action.

Talamone

Location of Battle of Telemon (Wikipedia)

Clearly, many Celts looked for fame and future in the lucrative Mediterranean world with the hope of returning home with their reputations established. Mercenary service also removed young warriors from the tribe at a time when their drive to achieve high status was at their most intense. Control of imported goods, especially gold coins and Italian wine, also guaranteed a large following.

Replica Celtic Helmet Britain

British Celtic Helmet

Potlach

Previous posts highlighted that trade with the Mediterranean had significant impact on the Celtic society. Nobles rewarded warriors and other clients with foreign luxuries, the value of which was measured by the influence it could command by giving it away. This method of redistributing prestigious items to increase status is called potlatch.

The 1st Century BC Greek historian, Poseidonius, gave an account of Lovernius, a Celtic noble who attempted to win popular support by driving his chariot across his territory and distributing gold and silver to those who followed him. Moreover, he set-up separate enclosures one and one-half miles on each side within which he filled vats with expensive liquor and prepared food for all who wished to feast—an important social gathering not unlike today’s celebrations. The feasts were usually wild and drunken, sometimes even deadly. Nonetheless, strict ritual rules were adhered.

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Wild Celtic Feasts

Strict ceremonial rules were observed for seating participants according to rank and prowess. Poseidonius describes the arrangement as follows:

“…they sit in a circle with the most influential man in the center, whether he is the greatest in warlike skill, nobility of family or wealth. Beside him sat the host and on either side of them were others in order of distinction. Their shield bearers stood behind them while the spearmen were seated on the opposite end. All feasted in common with their lords.”

Celtic Hearth in Roundhouse Used for Popular Assembly

Hearth in Celtic Roundhouse Used for Popular Assembly

Also in attendance were bards who sang praises of their patrons’ lineage, bravery, and wealth. Their songs could praise and satirize their patron, thus encouraging nobles and warriors to be even more generous during the feast. Strangers could also share the meal before they were asked their name and business.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

Everyone had a piece of meat according to the status. Traditionally, the greatest warrior had the choicest cut, consisting of the thigh. When the hindquarters were served, another warrior could claim it and fight in a single combat to the death against the champion to elevate his status. Others sought to reinforce their status through mock battle engagement that might escalate into more serious violence, possibly death. Poseidonius writes:

“The Celts engage in single combat at dinner. Assembling in arms, they engage in mock battle drill and mutual thrust and parry. Sometimes wounds were inflicted, and the irritation caused by this may even lead to the killing of the opponent, unless they were held back by their friends.”

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

Conclusions

According to Caesar, the bravery of the Celts sprang from their lack of fear of death, the result of their belief that the soul does not die. The classical authors, Caesar, Lucan, and Diodorus Siculus, in particular, emphasized the Celtic belief in metempsychosis—that after death the soul passes from one body to another, or reincarnation after death. This may, in part, explain the Celts’ belief in the importance of establishing their status in preparation for the journey to the Otherworld.

Not only did Celtic men fight bravely in battle, but historical accounts and mythology provide evidence that women held equal standing to men and often fought in battles and served as military and spiritual leaders. This will be discussed in the next post.

References:

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005. United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior: 300 BC — AD 100; 2001. Osprey Publishing LTD., Westminster, MD, USA.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.

Celtic Warrior Nobility—Hierarchical Society


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We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world—Joseph Campbell

CELTIC WARRIOR NOBILITY

The previous post in APOLLO’S RAVEN discussed how Romans viewed Celts as fierce warriors, due to their long conflict between 390-285 BC. This image had a long-lasting impact, evidenced by stereotypical comments made by Julius Caesar and Cicero in mid-1st Century BC:

  • Many Celts fought naked in battle
  • Celts had a ritual concept of warfare
  • Issues could be resolved through single combat
  • Triumphant noise and bragger were as important as the fight itself
  • For a warrior to maintain honor after a defeat in battle, he had to commit suicide
  • Attacks involved initial ferocious onslaughts, but quickly gave way to wild despair if initial charge was left unchecked
  • Celts were barbarians lacking methodological discipline, hallmark of their civilization.

However, Celts were also described as heroic, their society dominated by a warrior nobility whose lives were spent in perpetual conflict. Rich grave goods, including weapons and armor, together with later myths and legends, reinforced this image. Julius Caesar indicated that there were only two privileged classes in Celtic society: the druids [spiritual adviser] and warrior nobles. The common people were treated almost as slaves.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Gaul

Warfare and conflict played an essential part of the maintenance of the very fabric of the Celtic society, itself.  Their hierarchical society perpetuated conflict with young warriors seeking their fortunes and prestige through plundering and reputations in warfare.

Hierarchical Society

Celtic society was made up of extended families and clans grouped together to form territorial-based tribes, which were ruled by a king or high chieftain, often in pairs. By mid-1st Century BC, some tribes elected magistrates to rule in Gaul (modern day France), in many ways similar to Roman consuls. Nonetheless, magistrates had limited power. Most decisions were made or endorsed by a popular assembly of all free men in the tribe. Real power was held by a smaller council of leading nobles, among whom kings and chieftains were chosen.

Celtic Roundhouse Used for Assembly

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse Used for Public Assembly

Although we know very little about the common people, they were not slaves in the classical sense. Yet slave raiding was a principal motive for Celtic warfare. Captives were traded for luxury goods from Greece and Rome.

Greek Amphorae

Greek Wine Amphorae

The role of the Celtic warrior nobility was to wage war and in doing so, increase their personal reputation in the eyes of his peers. Caesar wrote: “Whenever war broke out and the services of a king’s subjects were required…they all took field, surrounded by their retainers and dependents of whom each noble has a greater or smaller number according to his birth or fortune. The only possession of such a following was the only criterion of influence and power they recognize.”

Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Ancient Celtic Roundhouse of Chieftain (Interior)

Having a large number of attendants was a reflection of a Celtic noble’s standing in society.  The Greek historian, Polybius, wrote that comradeship was treated with the greatest importance. Those among them who were most feared and most powerful had the largest number of attendants and associates.

Clientage was an agreement of mutual obligation where the lower ranking would pledge their fealty to the king or chieftain in return for security, patronage, and employment. Hence, common people labored for free men of the tribe who were entitled to attend the popular assembly and make decisions. Free men would in turn support the king in peace and above all war. It was an agreement that was closely bound to personal honor. For those who did not meet their obligations, dire consequences could befall them. Clients also extended to other tribes and even between tribes themselves. However, the continual competition for wealth, power, and influence gave rise to a hierarchy that was inherently unstable, as freemen could aspire to a noble status.

Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Ancient Celtic Village of Roundhouses

Hostage-Taking

Clientage was often reinforced by the exchange of hostages or the foster of children in the household of a patron. A previous post in APOLLO’S RAVEN also discussed how Rome used this strategy to acculturate the people they conquered or politically influenced.

The legend of King Arthur tells how the young prince was raised secretly in the household of Sir Ector with his foster brother Cai—a relationship that oftentimes had stronger ties than blood in Celtic society. Given the significance of the number seven in Celtic myth, childhood was probably the first seven years of life. Boys reached manhood at the age of fourteen. According to their social rank, they were allowed the right to bear arms. Girls were considered eligible for marriage at the same age.

Celtic Wooden Shield

Ancient Celtic Shield

For young nobles and sons of freemen who had been fostered, reaching fourteen meant it was time to become the client of a famous lord or attempt to attract a following of their own. In Wales, such warrior retinues were called cantrefs. Junior warriors would follow experienced warriors whose success would bring them a greater chance for wealth and glory.

The next series of posts will continue to explore the Celtic warrior culture and the importance of a chieftain to display his status and power through feasting and sharing his wealth.

References:

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005. United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior: 300 BC — AD 100; 2001. Osprey Publishing LTD., Westminster, MD, USA.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth; 1988; Anchor Books Doubleday, New York.

 

 

Celtic Warrior: Greek and Roman Accounts

 

 

Their [Celtic warriors] songs as they go into battle, their yells and leaping, and the dreadful noise of arms as they beat their shields in some ancestral custom, all this is done with one purpose: to terrify their enemies

— Livy, Roman Historian

Age of the Warriors

As discussed in a previous post on APOLLO’S RAVEN, the 3rd Century was classified as the Age of the Warriors for the Continental Celts, based upon Greek and Roman written accounts of their exploits. Burial sites also provide evidence that the warrior nobility was the dominant social group in the Celtic society, as evidenced by the stockpile of swords, lances, armor and shields in the burial sites. The emphasis on weaponry suggests a society geared for war.

Many Celts searched for fame and fortune in the rich, exotic Mediterranean world, in the hope of returning home with their reputations made. Many young warriors sought mercenary service that removed them from the tribe at a time when their drive to achieve high status was most intense. The Greek historian Strabo wrote: “The whole race is war mad, high-spirited and quick to battle.”

Coastline Near Marseille

Provence Coastline Near Marseille

The stereotypical image of the Celtic warrior was engraved onto the consciousness of Greeks and Romans after their fierce encounters with these pillagers.

Greek Accounts

Celtic groups moved southeast that took some of them through the Balkans, into Greece and across into Asia Minor. During this age, many foreign armies used Celtic mercenaries in their ranks, including Greece, Macedonia, Sicily, and Egypt. It is known that Alexander the Great had established friendly relations with Celts in the Balkans before embarking upon his campaigns in Asia.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

What encouraged the Celts to continue their mass invasion into Macedonia in the early 3rd Century BC is uncertain, but the area was in turmoil after the break-up of Alexander’s empire. In 280 B.C., Celtic hoards led by Brennus pillaged Macedonia and, then in the middle of winter, some thirty thousand warriors attacked Greece itself. The Greek author Pausanias wrote that Brennus campaigned against Greece to take advantage of the nation’s weakness at the time and to gain even greater wealth from its great sanctuaries. The richest of these was Delphi located high on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, where a temple had been dedicated for the worship of Apollo.

Apollo-WaltersArs

Apollo, God of Sun

Brennus had initial success, but his army was ultimately defeated by forces of nature: lightning, hail, and landslides. Terrified, the Celtic leader interpreted these natural forces as punishment from the gods, and he withdrew his army. The retreating Celtic forces suffered retribution at the hands of the Greeks and subsequently,  Brennus committed suicide.

The Greek historian Polybius wrote of one encounter of how the Celtic enemies were terrified by the dreadful din of innumerable horn blowers and trumpeters, the whole army shouting their war cries. After these events, the Celtic fury was deeply etched in the Greek minds.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

Roman Accounts

In 391 B.C., Celtic warriors marched on Rome and captured the entire city, except for the capital which was saved by the Roman garrison. After receiving a bribe of one thousand pounds of gold, the Celtic attackers moved northward to what would be known as Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy). From this time forward, the Celtic attacks were so numerous upon the Roman territory that it can be argued that the city was obliged to become a major military power—the first step towards becoming a world power—because of their need to crush the Celtic barbarians. During the long conflict between 390-285 B.C., the Celts were a close-range threat. The best known Celtic mercenaries were those who joined Hannibal during his invasion of Italy during the Second Punic War and helped contribute to his victories. Hence, Rome’s image of the fierce Celtic warriors was created.

Replica Celtic Helmet Britain

Celtic Helmet

In 225 B.C., another group of Celtic mercenaries came south over the Alps to fight with the Cispalpine Gauls against the Romans in the Battle of Telamon. These Celtic mercenaries were called the Gaesataetranslated as ‘spearmen’. These mercenary warriors were a distinct group outside the normal social structure of the clan and tribe. The custom of the Gaesatae was to appear naked on the field of battle, a ritual action to demonstrate their ferocity and lack of fear. The Romans threw volleys of javelins at the naked Gaesatae who fought only with small shields. Some of them rushed wildly at the Romans and were slaughtered. Others withdrew, their retreat causing disorder among their allies.

Dying Gladiator

Statue of Dying Gaul

According to Caesar, the bravery of Celts sprang from their lack of fear of death. They believed the soul did not die. The classical authors, Lucan and Diodorus Siculus, emphasized the Celt’s belief in metempsychosis—that after death the soul passes from one body to another. Welsh and Irish mythologies talk about the easy passage to and fro from the physical world to the Otherworld, the world of the dead.

In his accounts, Julius Caesar regarded only two classes of any status in the Celtic society—the druids (priests) and the knights (noble warriors)—which were evidenced in Irish and Welsh culture. Druids were recruited from the sons and daughters of free-born warriors. They officiated the worship of the gods and interpreted divine purpose and will. The druids had a strong political role in this warrior society.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

The next posts will further describe the Celtic warrior culture and their religious beliefs.

References:

John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior: 300 BC — AD 100; 2001 Osprey Publishing LTD., Westminster, MD, USA.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.