The Champion’s Portion is an extension to the story of Bricriu’s Feast and is thought to have been based on texts from the 9th century which, in turn, were based on texts from 7th century (those texts are no longer extant) but the tale would have been orally transmitted for centuries before eventually being committed to writing.
Bricriu’s Feast is found in several manuscripts, including The Book of the Dun Cow (Lebor na hUidre) c.1106 so called because the original vellum, upon which it was written, was made from the hide of a brown cow supposedly owned by the abbot of the monastery at Clonmacnoise.
The Book of the Dun Cow was written in the 11th century and is the oldest surviving miscellaneous manuscript in Irish literature but is badly damaged: only 67 leaves remain and many of the texts are incomplete.
The manuscript is thought to be the work of three scribes, identified with the letters A, M and H.
A and M were contemporary. A began the manuscript and several of the texts, which were continued by M, identified as Máel Muire, murdered by Vikings at Clonmacnoise in 1106.
Based on orthography and an English loanword, H (so named for his fondness of inserting homilies into the texts) was apparently writing in the late 12th or early 13th century and added a number of new texts and passages, sometimes over erased portions of the original, sometimes on new leaves. Vellum, made of lamb, calf, or goat skin, was expensive, so a page was often re-used by scribes for another document after the original text had been scraped or washed off.
Bricriu’s Feast is also found in The Book of Leinster, a medieval Irish literary compendium of stories, poetry, and history, and it appears, from annals included in it, that it was written between 1151 and 1201, although largely completed by 1160 and now kept in TrinityCollege, Dublin.
The manuscript is a composite work and more than one hand appears to have been responsible for its production. The principal compiler and scribe was probably Áed Ua Crimthainn who was abbot of the monastery of Tír-Dá-Glas on the Shannon.
In the story, Bricriu promises the Champion’s Portion of his feast to three different heroes. A violent dispute over precedence ensues, which leads to a series of contests. One night a giant carrying an ax challenges the warriors of the Ulaidh to behead him in exchange for a chance to behead them in turn. On successive nights two of the heroes behead the giant, who, each time, replaces his head and leaves but comes back to take his turn only to find that the warriors have departed.Finally, the undisputed hero, Cú Chulainn, beheads the giant and, when the giant returns, places his own head on the block, true to his word. The giant, really a wizard in disguise, proclaims Cú Chulainn the first hero of the Ulaidh.
This is considered the source for the beheading game used in Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, a late 14th century tale in Middle English while Bricriu’s Feast was the definitive source for W.B.Yeats’s play The Green Helmet. Not bad for an old Irish tale!
Bricriu’s Feast was the first old world saga or story I ever read that made me laugh out loud. The story teller was fully aware of the comic aspects of the heroic tale.
There are, however, so many repetitions and duplications, which may well have sounded better in the telling, but the structure of the manuscripts leaves something to be desired. Errors in transcription and transmission and the insertions of the different Christian scribes do not make for easy reading.
Sticking closely to the original translations*, this is my version of the story broken into digestible (I hope) and coherent chunks.
I will post Chapter One soon.
Early Irish Myths and Sagas, Translated and with an introduction and notes by Jeffrey Gantz. Penguin Classics 1981
Fled Bricrend (The Feast of Bricriu), translated by George Henderson,
Medieval Irish Series, Cambridge Ontario 1999
Lady Gregory’s Complete Irish Mythology
Originally published as separate volumes by John Murray Publishers, London
Gods and Fighting Men (1904) and Cuchullain of Muirthemne (1902)
There I was thinking about the solstice – the longest day of the year– and once again I missed it in the sense that I am a bit late with this post as well as actually missing the actual day itself. I used to love it when I was a child in Ireland. Summer time would have kicked in and it would be bright until at least 21:30 or even later. Anyway, here in Perth, in the southern hemisphere I decided to keep a lookout for it – Jun 21 in Ireland and Dec 21 here in Perth. Or so I thought.How do you work out the longest day? By counting the hours and minutes of sunlight, I suppose and even that managed to elude me, for the most part!
As if that accurate counting of hours and minutes weren’t enough of a hurdle, Lord Kelvin first came up with the idea of using atomic transitions to measure time when he was in his mid-fifties. Born in 1824, he defined absolute zero as -273.15 Celsius or -459.67 Fahrenheit and after whom the base unit of absolute temperature in the International System of Units was named. (Probably something to do with living through Irish winters.) All I ever knew about time was that it was the instrument by which change is measured! A modern dictionary definition of time is more exacting ‘Time is the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, to the future.’
Here’s my attempt to measure time –
Sat Dec 14
Sun Dec 15
Mon Dec 16
Tue Dec 17
Wed Dec 18
Thu Dec 19
Fri Dec 20
Sat Dec 21
Sun Dec 22
Mon Dec 23
Hours of light
Anyway, one hundred and forty years after Kelvin came up with the idea of atomic clocks, which measure the electromagnetic signal emitted by electrons in atoms when they change energy levels, they have become our most accurate time and frequency standards today. Atomic clocks support time distribution services internationally, television broadcasts wave frequency and global navigation satellite systems.
In 1949 an atomic clock (less accurate than a quartz one) first demonstrated the physical concept before Essen and Parry built an accurate, and bulky, atomic clock to a caesium standard half a dozen years later.
By 1964, Hewlett-Packard had released much smaller rack-mountable devices with increasing accuracy which led the scientific community to redefine the second in terms of a specific atomic frequency in 1967.
Smart phones and us, presumably, have benefitted from these advances in technology as accurate, battery-driven atomic clocks became commercially available in 2011, most easily seen in Google or Apple Maps on our phones and in our cars. Four years later, NASA launched Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC), a miniaturised, ultra-precise, mercury-ion atomic clock more accurate then mere terrestrial clocks, which are maintained by national standards agencies, synchronised to an accuracy of 1 part in 1014 seconds per day! How did we ever survive without such pinpoint accuracy? How did I miss marking the longest day, the summer solstice, here in the Southern Hemisphere?
So, how was time measured before pendulums, wind-up watches, quartz timepieces, grandfather clocks and smart devices became ubiquitous? What served as units of time if seconds and minutes could not be conveniently measured or counted? The apparent motion of the sun across the sky, the phases of the moon, and the beat of a heart must have served some such purpose while day and night marked longer periods.
Time calculation still takes two distinct forms – the calendar, a geometrical way of organising intervals of time, and the clock, a physical device that counts the passage of time.
The ancient Egyptians may have divided the day into twelve smaller parts on their sundials, influenced no doubt by the 12 lunar cycles in a year. Their sundial used a gnomon to cast a shadow on a set of markings calibrated to the hour. The Romans used a clepsydra, a vessel with holes for the outflow of water. As the water emptied, it measured time, sort of like an hour glass with sand.
‘May the gods destroy that man who discovered hours and first set up a sundial here, to cut up my day!’
All of the above led me to the impending solstice which occurs when the Sun appears to reach its most northerly or southerly point as the Earth rotates and orbits the Sun. Bizarrely, I have been attempting to record daily sunrise and sunset where I live here in Perth – see the chart above – and it literally comes down to one or two minutes difference over the course of a week or so.
The Sun’s dailyarc affects the length of daytime experienced and amount of daylight received during a given season. The two moments, when the angle of Earth’s rotational axis is towards the Sun, are the solstices, occurring annually, around June 21 and December 21, when the Sun’s motion comes to a stop. When it is the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere in Australia, it is the winter solstice in the Northern. The day of a solstice in either hemisphere has either the most sunlight of the year (summer solstice) or the least sunlight of the year (winter solstice). The summer solstice is when the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky and has the longest period of daylight. Conversely, the winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, when the Sun is at its lowest daily position in the sky.
The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (‘sun’) and sistere (‘to stand still’) because at the solstices, the Sun’s daily path seems to stop at a northern or southern limit before reversing direction. The Ancient Greeks used the term “ηλιοστάσιο” (heliostāsio), meaning stand of the Sun. The Sun’s westerly motion never ceases as Earth is continually in rotation.
The concept of the solstices was embedded in ancient Greek celestial navigation. When they realised that the Earth was spherical they devised the idea of an imaginary spherical surface rotating with the planets and stars fixed in it. The stars move across the inner surface of this imaginary celestial sphere along the circumferences of circles in parallel planes perpendicular to the Earth’s axis. The Sun and the planets do not move in these parallel paths but at an angle to the axis, bringing the Sun and planets across the paths of, and in among, the stars.
The exact solstice time is not easy to determine as I found out. The angle become smaller as the Sun gets closer to its maximum/minimum declination. The days before and after the solstice, are barely detectable with devices like sextant and impossible with more traditional tools like a gnomon. It is also hard to detect the changes on sunrise/sunset azimuth due to the atmospheric refraction changes.
According to Google, in 2019 the summer solstice will occur between December 20 and December 23 in the Southern Hemisphere and between June 20 and June 22 in the Northern.
How did Iron Age societies calculate such things as the start or separation of seasonal change? Did the druids base their pronouncements on observations of the sky and how was time calculated?
Ancient Indian philosophers believed that Time repeated ages over the lifespan of the universe, leading to beliefs in rebirth and reincarnation, as did the Celtic druids.
Ancient Greek philosophers wondered if time was linear or cyclical and if it was endless or finite while the Islamic and Judeo-Christian world-view regard time as linear and directional, beginning with God creating the world. The traditional Christian view sees the present order of things coming to an ‘end time’ although I don’t think that was ever mentioned in my primary school catechism which was a list of questions and answers that we were expected to memorise. I can only remember two of them now – ‘Who is God? God is our father in heaven’ and ‘Who made the world? God made the world.’
Celtic and other nomadic groups more than likely used the moon as a time-measuring device as early as 6,000 years ago with Lunar calendars of 12 or 13 lunar months corresponding to cycles of Moon phases. Seasons quickly come adrift in a lunar calendar and it became the prerogative of the druid class to calculate and add days or months to some years to balance things out.
Julius Caesar put the Roman world on a solar, or Julian, calendar in 45 BC indicating the seasons relative to the apparent position of the Sun but that, too, was faulty as the astronomical solstices and equinoxes moved by more than ten minutes per year. The solar day was the time interval between two successive journeys of the Sun across the local meridian – an imaginary line running from north to south – passing directly overhead. At this ‘solar noon’ the Sun reaches its highest point or zenith on its daily arc across the sky. It was not until 1582 that Pope Gregory XIII introduced a correction with the Gregorian solar calendar, now the most commonly used calendar around the world but which does not correspond to cycles of Moon phase.
The Celtic Coligny calendar, found in France in 1887, dates back to the first century A.D. and was used to define the beginning and length of the day, the week, the month, the seasons, quarter days, and festivals and was an attempt to reconcile the cycles of the moon and sun, as did the modern Gregorian calendar. However, the Coligny calendar considers the phases of the moon to be important, and each month always begins with the same moon phase.
Among the Celts, the year was divided into a light half and a dark half. As the day was seen as beginning at sunset, so the year was seen as beginning with the arrival of the darkness at the feis of Samhain (around 1 November in the modern calendar).The light half of the year started at Bealtaine (around 1 May, modern calendar). Longer periods were reckoned in nights, as in the surviving English term fortnight meaning two weeks.
Those accuracy issues make it possible to determine the solstice day only with the use of more complex tools, which of course I don’t have, nor would I know how to use them, but my smart phone weather gizmo gives me – I presume – accurate readings for sunrise and sunset each day, as in the attached table. How did ancient societies do it? This is not a rhetorical question!
For vague comparison, the Southern Hemisphere (Winter) Solstice of 21 June 2019 had sunrise 07:15 and sunset at 17:18 giving a meagre daylight of 10 hours and three minutes.
The ancient Celtic year was divided into four main parts, according to the seasons, each of which was preceded by a great religious festival and accompanied by feasting, sports, games and religious observances.
In the Celtic world, Bealtaine (end of April or May 1)* marked the start of the summer quarter and the return of the sun’s warmth and the consequent fertility of crops and animals and was observed by lighting bonfires, the smoke of these holy fires associated with the Celtic sun god Belenos. Druids officiated at these ceremonies, muttering incantations and throwing handfuls of bones of both animals and warriors into the flames that flared orange against the darkening sky to the west, while the people and their cattle walked around and between two great fires, and young boys dared each other to leap over the flames and embers from the burnt offerings which the druids believed had purifying powers used to kill pests on cattle before they were driven out to open grazing
May Day customs – dancing at crossroads – still remain popular in many parts of the Celtic world with all hearth fires and lamps extinguished as night fell and the only light coming from the two sacrificial fires lit by the druids. All domestic new fires had to be kindled from these new sacred fires.
Yellow flowers of gorse, hazel and marsh marigold were used to decorate the entrances to the dwellings so that their sweet scent permeated the warm night air of early summer. Bealtaine dew was also thought to enhance beauty and maintain youthfulness if one rolled naked and washed in the dew or it could be collected in a jar and left in the sunlight, for the ‘filtered essence’ was thought to maintain youthfulness and increase sexual attractiveness!
Bealtaine, like its counterpart festival, Samhain, was a time most auspicious for the Sídhe, or the fairy folk, who were particularly active at the start of Bealtaine, emerging from their ancient passage mounds, leaving their gold and treasure momentarily unguarded for the greedy and the unwary.
Bealtaine may also refer to the Bilé, the Celtic god of life and death and may have associations with Baal, the Eastern deity.
Christianity’s first major confrontation with Celtic and pagan Ireland also took place during the festival of Bealtaine when St. Patrick, later to become the patron saint of the island, lit the paschal fire at Slane before the druids of king Laoghaire first lit the sacred fire of Bealtaine on the holy mound of Tara in 433 A.D.
In Australia, of course, the seasons are revesed and Bealtaine would be held at the end of October or the very beginning of November
Well, it’s that time again – Saint Paddy’s Day. Amazing really, what the day inspires – from massive street parades with green beer to the most unlikely people – Genghis Khan, that sort of thing – discovering that they have Irish ancestry hence it is ok to wear lurid green t-shirts, hats, ties and, (God help me), male and female briefs with stupid slogans – “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” or “Top of the morning to you.”
I broke down recently, for the first time, ever. Really. I promise. I actually bought St. Patrick whatdymecallit – gimcracks? – from an outlet here imaginatively and (honestly called) The Reject Shop – Why Pay Too Much?.
A pack of four small, moulded plastic hats in bright green with tight elastic chin string cost $3. Anyway for the past week or so, The Reject Shop – and possibly such places as The Five Dollar Store – have offered an array of Irish themed crap while the TV here has bombarded viewers with ancestry ads offering family searches back over many generations.
So, I beg to ask, is St Paddy just for the Irish or is he a “Kissable Everyman” for all comers.
What have we done to deserve this? Are Irish people, gender indiscriminate, so cuddly adorable that they deserve to be smothered with kisses like some sleepy koala cub, or cheeky kitten? And is it anything actually to do with Saint Patrick at all. How does that reflect on Irish people in general? Does it apply to other nations’ National Days?
Country National Day
Ireland 17 Mar St Patrick’s Day
USA 04 July Indolence Day
England 23 Apr St George’s Day
Scotland 30 Nov St Andrew’s Day
Wales 01 Mar St David’s Day
France 14 Jul Bastille Day
Italy 02 June Festa della Repubblica
China 01 Oct National Day
Vietnam 02 Sept National Day
Belgium 21 July National Day
Australia 26 January Australia Day
Does anyone in Australia give a tinker’s curse about Belgium’s National Day (and vice versa) and do the Scottish go out of their way to celebrate the festa della Republica? Yet punters, (including myself this year) really do buy ridiculous paraphernalia (green bowler hats, scarves, commerative plates and plaques, t-shirts, key rings, dolls, fake red hair and beards, hideous plastic shillelaghs and grinning leprechauns sitting atop spotted toadstools) otherwise such price conscious emporiums wouldn’t stock them, I suppose.
How much junk is produced for France’s National Day for example, – model guillotines, and plastic strings of onions? Are mini dragons or bravely waving plastic or ceramic flags sold in bulk for other National Days. Who, except perhaps the Americans who actually go so far as to dye their beer green for March 17, would treat their national drink with such disrespect as to add food colouring. Imagine the French dying their wine green or blue!
Ok, so Paint Saddy’s day is both a Feast Day – and a Holy Day of Obligation! (Roman Catholics in Ireland are obliged to attend Mass) – but does that mean we deserve (unreservedly?) to be kissed? So, my point, labouriously, is this, why are Irish, and not specifically other nations, to be kissed on their National Day. Not reviled, despised, thanked, rewarded, recognised, applauded, awarded but kissed? How did this come about?
Is it the culture, the music, the quaintness, the far flung western isle sort of thing, the heavy Arran-knit sweaters or is it more likely that 17 March falls conveniently halfway through the period known as Lent, when Christians “voluntarily” beginning a period of penance by refraining from something or other. In my childhood, it was giving up sugar or chocolate (later it was cigs and the pints) until the breakout on Easter Sunday with chocolate rabbits and eggs, However, on St Paddy’s Day, the traditional Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol were lifted for the day, which probably has done more to encourage and promote the Saint Patrick’s Day tradition of alcohol consumption in terms of Messrs Guinness & Jameson than any other thing.
Maybe that’s why the Irish are kissed? Because we found a way to have a bit of a knees-up in the middle of a drab penitential period.
I’ll definitely make an effort (not much required, actually, if the truth be known) to drink a Guinness on Paddy’s Day- either draught in some non-local pub or drink the elegant long cans sedately in my own garden. I’ll probably have a whiskey too, a Jameson, for old time’s sake, I’ll tell myself. I’ll pin up the green plastic mini top hats so thanks Paint Saddy, or Naomh Pádraig, as I knew him when I was a kid.
Here are a few misconceptions about Ireland’s Patron Saint?
He never drove the snakes out of Ireland, as there were never snakes in the island. He is responsible for starting this idea of the ‘island of saints and scholars”. Possible an accomplished womaniser and not too adverse to accepting a back-hander from local chieftains apparently, as, at his trial, he was accused of both. He certainly raised the ire of the British heretical bishops following the Pelagian branch of Christianity at the time while he reviled slavery and its widespread practice.
I don’t think he ever left the “blessèd isle” from when he arrived in his second coming, as it were, in 432 until his death in Four Sixty something A.D. I’ve always admired perseverance, dedication and effort and I’d have to give the Saint full marks there.
I have been guilty of ethnocentricity in my collection of posts about Celtic Iron Age Technology in that I related them solely to the culture and lifestyle associated with Ireland from roughly 300 BCE to the arrival of Christianity some 730 years later. Of course, no one in Ireland during that time would have considered themselves Celts – or Irish – for that matter, but Celtic is what they were.
This year, travelling through France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia I realised that I was in the very heartlands of the people known by the Romans as Galli or Galatae and as Keltoi by the Greeks, but what they called themselves is conjecture. Prehistoric Bronze Age peoples, loosely linked by a common heritage, style, languages, customs and art, from the central and east central plains of Europe coalesced around 750 BCE, with the discovery and use of iron to become the most powerful people in Europe from about 450 BCE – 250 BCE.
Initially a nomadic, pastoral people who favoured the cow and the horse above all other, they adopted agriculture and settled down around La Tène in modern day Switzerland and around the Lake Neuchatel in modern Austria.
Archaeologists labelled certain cultures within the Late Bronze Age over view. The culture known as Urnfield, where the dead were cremated in pots, is considered ‘proto’ Celts followed by the Hallstatt – after a huge site in Austria – in 1200 BCE.
From 450 BCE, Celtic culture was marked by La Tène – after a lakeside site in Switzerland. There, a large quantity of material goods was found. With their discovery of iron, both in agricultural – better ploughshares – and in war – spears and swords – the Celts flooded new areas, urged on by increasing population and the need for more farmland.
Spread out from their base in North East Europe, inevitably they came into contact, and met resistance, from the expanding Roman Empire. Pushed back north and west into Gaul, modern-day France, the Celts were hemmed in by Scandinavian tribes moving south themselves as Slavic tribes pushed in from the east.
Under pressure on all sides, the Celts retreated to Britain and Ireland before even those in Britain were pushed to the extremes of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall by the arrival of the Saxons and other Germanic and Scandinavian tribes with the last remnants of true Celtic culture ensconced in Ireland until the arrival of Christianity circa 400 A.D.
So goes the myth anyway, I suppose, but at the same time, I felt comfortable and at ease walking through these heartlands. Perhaps it was the beer!
(I know, I know this isn’t really Celtic Iron Age Trivia / Technology like the other posts in this category have been but …. well, it was just St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) this day last week so here goes – sorry if I dispell any myths!).
Go into any Irish pub anywhere outside of Ireland itself and no doubt there will be a mural or picture of the saint himself, mitred, robed, smiling beatifically or looking suitably sombre and not a pint of Guinness in sight.
The reality was rather different as it turns out.
Patrick, whose birth name was Maewyn Succat (b.390 CE), was the son of Conchessa and Calpurnius, a tax collector appointed by the Roman administration in western Britain. Patrick’s family were local stock who had long accepted Roman rule and custom and would be considered well to do in that they themselves were slave-owners.
Constantine the Great had earlier exempted Christian clergy from city council duties and, as increasingly frequent raids on the coastal districts made collecting taxes difficult, Maewyn’s grandfather, Potitus, had taken full advantage of the exemption by entering into a relaxed form of Christianity.
Calpurnius, however, was obliged to resort to harsh methods to collect the amounts demanded by Rome as, if less than demanded was collected, the “exactor,’ as Calpurnius was known, had to make up the deficit from his own pocket.
Stillicho, a Roman legate, was insisting on the full tax levy and Calpurnius was under a lot of pressure to buy and sell slaves to redress the difference
In 406 CE, Irish raiders attacked their Roman style villa and enslaved the 16 year old Maewyn to herd and tend sheep in the rugged countryside around Slemish, Northeastern Ireland. By 410 CE, all Roman forces had withdrawn from Brittania, leaving the country exposed to continuing raiding by Goidels or Irish raiders.
The youth spent 6 years in thrall to Irish pagans, where he discovered both his “anam cara” – the friend of his soul with his God and an empathy for his captors as much cut off from the true religion as he felt himself to be. Guided by a voice only he could hear, he escaped captivity and, convinced of his divinely inspired mission, studied under Bishop Germanus in Auxerre and again in Rome, determined to bring salvation to the people controlled by their pagan druids.
In 431 Pope Celestine I, concerned more at the growth of Pelagianism in Britain than the rife paganism in Hibernia, sent his bishop to suppress the Pelagianheresy but Palladius died with no success in Scotland in 432.
Maewyn, meanwhile, had received the tonsure at Lérins Abbey and taken the name Patroculus, and jumped at the chance to return to the island of his slavery and pagan druidism. Celestine sensed that Patroculus was made of sterner stuff than his former envoy and as a womaniser, a fighter, a hard man of his times, well used to both the power of the word as well as the sword, he would be an invaluable bulwark against the bishops in Britain who stuck to their heretical ways. Patroculus certainly never claimed to be a saint but by his death in 461 he had founded a base for Christianity in the far-flung western isle that has never wavered since.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day for next year if you missed it!
According to Julius Caesar and other writers and chroniclers from the first century BCE, such as Strabo, a Greek geographer, and Diodorus Siculus, an historian from Sicily, the ancient Celtic druids were more than just a semi-mystical priesthood.
Caesar certainly saw them not only as an organised inter-tribal brotherhood who acted as living repositories of their tribal histories and legends, negotiating, legislating, judging and officiating over all individual and community oaths and sacrifices but also as a rival authority to the extension of Roman power among the so-called barbarian tribes of the north.
Others regarded druids as poets and bards, seers, teachers, historians, astronomers, medical practioners and – later through the distorted lens of early Christians – as devious wizards and magicians who kept their people in thrall with simple sleight-of-hand tricks.
Probably all of the above is true, in some sense, in that they were, without doubt, the learned men of their people who had the recognised and unquestioned power to ‘excommunicate” individuals from community events. All commentators agree that they had a vast store of knowledge which they acquired orally and passed on to their followers over a 20 year training period.
No doubt they were poets and bards as the easiest way to memorise huge tracts of knowledge relating to tribal law and ownership was to make use of standard poetic functions such as alliteration, rhyme, onomatopoeia, simile and metaphor as a way of preserving and keeping alive tribal history and legends.
However, as no written records*1 exist of what the druids knew or learned, it is mere conjecture to say what they actually did.
Nevertheless, it is feasible to consider how the classical ancients described them and to put that knowledge into a suitable context.
It is likely that the druids became the sole provider of laws and customs among the widely varied nomadic and pastoralist Celtic people inhabiting Europe from the Early Iron Age, c.800 BCE. Being outdoors as a way of life, the druids would have become very receptive to the divine powers inherent in nature and would willingly have entered into a communion with them, having gradually assimilated facets from other existing codes of law and belief into their own oral bodies of knowledge. As nomadic people settled and adopted agriculture, more elaborate rituals and sacrifices were needed and the druids eventually became the predominant social and political bond uniting all Celtic people that Caesar feared so much and vowed to destroy.
What is known is that druids could be both male and female, with the men shaving their head across the forehead, leaving the hair long at the back, and that they were exempt from taxes and military service. Extraordinary attention was paid to the human head, which was seen as the location of the human spirit or soul. Heads, taken as a trophy in battle, implying control of an enemy’s spirit, were later preserved in cedar oil. Shrines often contained these mummified skulls or artistic representations of them.
With the rise of the hill forts and their ascendant chieftains, druids gravitated to the throne where they acted as trusted advisors. Regarding their role as seers and astronomers, they believed in a future or imagined worlds such as Tír na nÓg, Uí Breasail and Magh Mell.
Such powers they may have exercised would have depended upon their knowledge of the seasons and seasonal change, and their priveledged status, as intermediaries in the communion between men and gods, giving them the authority to initiate the planting and harvesting of crops and rites of thanks for success.
Seasonal change may have involved a close study of nature with such signs as frogs spawning deeper than usual or the trees showing the backside of their leaves and so on, being an imminent sign of changing weather patterns.
Similarly, like shamans world-wide, they perhaps used local plants to alter their worldly perception and also that of their people through the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms and plants such as foxglove or belladonna or perhaps, on a more one-to-one situation, hypnotism.
Oak groves were sacred to the druids as were certain rivers, and natural features of their landscape such as hilltops and valleys. Certainly, sacrifice of plants and animals took place while classical writers shuddered in scandalised horror at the idea of human sacrifice, ignoring their own brutal histories of slavery, torture and sacrifice in the public arenas.
Caesar seemed to feel Druidism originated in Britain, most especially in the modern day region of Anglesley Island off Wales, known then to the Romans as the Isle of Mona and that druidism spread to most of Europe but not as far south as Spain or Italy but it is more likely the other way round. As Caesar advanced into Gaul, gradually pushing back the barbarian tribes, the old knowledge retreated along with the population until further encroachment from Germanic tribes in the north meant that remaining Celts retreated to the islands of the Atlantic or clung to the northernmost fringes of Europe. Pushed again and finally hemmed in by the legions in Britain, the druids reputedly met their end facing off against advancing Roman legions who stormed the Isle of Anglesey in 60 CE, wiping out the last stronghold of Celtic druidism. That he knew of, anyway!
Inevitably druids continued, unhindered in their ways, in the far flung western isle of Ireland, relatively untouched by Roman rule, for a further 500 years until the arrival of Christianity on the shores, (not taking into account of the hundreds of Christian enslaved from raids on both the European mainland but also from the west coast of Britain, a trade that was to continue for many more centuries).
The Hindu Link
Recent Celtic scholarship*2 has shown that the origins of druidism share a common Indo-European heritage with the Brahmins of Vedic India. Strong parallels exist between ancient Celtic and Hindu society, with their common Indo-European roots in law and customs going back to the Early Bronze Age or even the Neolithic period.
As far back as 1786, Sir William Jones discovered close links between ancient Sanskrit – the language of the Vedas – and Greek, Latin, Celtic and Germanic languages. Linguistically, Italic and Celtic (the fore-fathers of Latin and Old Irish) and Indo-Iranian (Persian, or Avestan, and Sanskrit) were part of the much greater family of Indo-European languages sharing many common features and lexical cognates.
By the third millennium BCE, The Indo-Aryan cattle-rearing nomads roaming the Eurasian steppes west of the Urals dispersed west to Europe and, circa 1500 BCE, arrived in the north west plains of India from the mountain passes of Afghanistan where their beliefs merged with pre-existing ones to form the basis of Hinduism. Similar to the Celts of Western Europe, their culture was characterised by domesticated cattle and horses, chariots, spoked wheels and elaborate metalworkings.
Certainly, early Celtic society was based on a shared or common language – (Proto-Celtic), an authoritative priesthood (Druids), a strict social hierarchy (Chieftains / Kings – Nobles / Warriors – Priests / Druids – Farmers / Craft-workers – Slaves) with acknowledged descent from a single, known ancestor and where cattle represented both wealth and prestige. The Indus valley civilization at a comparable time was remarkably similar as society was based on the pillars of language (Sanskrit), an authoritative priesthood (the Brahmins) and a social hierarchy of chieftains supported by the Brahmin priestly caste overseeing a warrior nobility with ordinary people below them and subjugated people or slaves at the bottom).
The Celtic grouping of families into four generations – the Irish “derbfine” is similar to the Indian notion of “sapinda.” Ancient Irish marriage laws paralleled ancient Indian ones, so too did the laws of inheritance through the female line. The use of fasting – a hunger strike – to “dishonour” a transgressor is common to this day in both societies – think Gandhi, Bobby Sands and the many others who have pledged their life for a principle! The ancient oral Irish legal foundation, the laws of Fénechus, transcribed from the 7th century CE by Christian scribes and constantly annotated and added to, and later known as the Brehon Laws, share many similarities with the Vedic culture and laws of the North West Indus valley in modern day India.
According to The Book of Invasions, (see earlier post on Epochs and the Books of Invasions) a collection of poems and prose narratives that presents itself as a chronological “history” of Ireland and the Irish, the earliest of which was compiled by anonymous scribes during the 11th century, Amergin was a Milesian seer or druid who fought against the Tuatha De Danann and is chiefly remembered even today for his song where he subsumes the world into his own being with a philosophic outlook that parallels the declaration of the Lord Shri Krishna in the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita. *3
The Song of Amergin
I am the wind that blows across the sea;
I am the wave of the ocean;
I am the murmur of the billows;
I am the ox of the seven combats;
I am the vulture on the rock;
I am a beam of the sun;
I am the fairest of flowers;
I am a wild boar in valour;
I am a salmon in the pool;
I am a lake on the plain;
I am the skill of the craftsman;
I am a word of science;
I am the spear point that gives battle;
I am the God who creates in the head of man the fire of thought.
Who is it that enlightens the assembly upon the mountain, if not I?
Who tells the ages of the moon, if not I?
Who shows the place where the sun goes to rest, if not I?
Who is the God that fashions enchantments – The enchantment of battle and the wind of change?
Compare with Chapter 10, The Divine Manifestations, of the holy book of the Bhagavad Geeta *3
I am the electric Force in the powers of nature
I am the mind
and I am the intelligence in all that lives,
I am the Whirlwind among the winds
of the waters, I am the Ocean
I am the Thunderbolt of weapons
of cows I am the Cow of Plenty
I am the Eagle among birds
I am the passion in those who procreate
I am the eternal present,
I am the lion among beasts
I am the beginning, the middle and the end in creation
I am time inexhaustible
I am all devouring death
I am the origin of all that shall happen
Whatever is glorious, excellent, beautiful and mighty,
be assured that it comes from but a fragment of my splendour.
Whatever the case, it is beguiling to think of a single strand of humanity sowing the seeds of civilization from Bengal to Donegal as attested by this dedication from the 1935 edition of The Geeta to W.B. Yeats!
*1 The Coligny Calendar, dating from the first century CE has sixteen columns of months covering a period of five years and has been compared with Vedic cosmology. Major festival, according to Diodorus Siculus were held every five years and festival days were marked on the calendar.
Binchy, D. A. 1972. “Celtic Suretyship, a fossilized Indo-European Institution?” The Irish Jurist 7, 360–72.
Charles-Edwards, Th. 1980. “Nau Kynwedi Teithiauc.” In D. Jenkins and M.E. Owen (eds.), The Welsh Law of Women. Studies presented to Professor Daniel A. Binchy on his eightieth birthday, 3 June 1980. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 23–39.
*3 The Geeta – the Gospel of the lord Shri Krishna
Put into English by Shri Purohit Swami 1935 Faber & Faber Ltd.
Along with the rise of the hill forts circa 1000 BCE, and the emphasis on items both as weapons and ornamentation, the stratification of society, into chieftains or kings surrounded by nobles and warriors supported by priests or druids interceding for farmers, craft-workers and slaves, was firmly established. This hierarchy inevitably involved the notion of the hero or champion and was marked by a leader able to distribute gifts and largesse while, at the same time, host feasts and celebrations where warriors would vie with each other for the favour of their liege. Such restrained power necessitated the rise of the heroic warrior, the hero, to stand alone and unbeaten. No doubt the flowering of literature of the twelfth century French Romance and Mallory’s later Arthurian romances must all have stemmed from the Iron Age concept.
Not everyone would – or could – be a hero. While all young boys played fierce physical games with wooden sticks – a proto Hurley? – before weapons could be handled, a hero was always set apart. Never having recognised parents and a mysterious background, Arthur is fostered at an early age just as Oedipus is brought up in ignorance of his parents and Lancelot of Arthurian legend is raised by the shadowy Lady of the Lake while Cú Chulainn’s birth is similarly shrouded in mystery.
Not obvious parentage means the hero has no name and must acquire one through his own actions – Sétanta kills the forge hound and becomes Cú Chulainn, while later Celtic heroes, Finn and the Welsh, Gwion, gain their later names of brilliance and light. The significance of having no family means a concomitant feeling of standing alone – the hero can expect no aid in his quest for glory but at the same time no limits are placed on his ambitions for his name to live on, forever, on the lips of men.
Never accepted in his own country, the Iron Age hero must leave his comfort zone, undergoing training at the hands of learned druids or experienced warriors. Tests of physical prowess, – ability to jump or vault over a stick their own height, run barefoot through a forest without breaking a twig underfoot, defend against 9 men throwing spears, remove a thorn from his foot while running – must be passed, but the hero must also be erudite and knowledgeable about poetry. Strangers approaching the territory of a chieftain had to undergo single combat or compose a poem on the spot.
Cú Chulainn trained under the tutelage of the warrior woman, Scáthach, who presented the fearsome gae bolga to the hero, along with a warning of its consequent use. Beowulf sought out sea monsters before going on to defeating Grendel and its mother, Arthur trained under the venerable Sir Ector de Maris, all to achieve the fame they sought. Beowulf leaves for the court of Denmark; Tristan of Arthurian legend travels to Ireland from his native Cornwall.
Nowhere in the manuscripts is it ever suggested that Cú Chulainn is not from the kingdom of the Ulaidh (modern day Ulster in Northern Ireland) nevertheless, when all the fighting age men of the area are stricken with an ancient curse, Cú Chulainn alone is exempt. Like all his fellow outsiders, having no ties to hamper his actions, the hero inevitably becomes a force for disruption, change and catastrophe.
Heroes must claim their weapons forcibly or obtain them from supernatural forces – Lancelot receives his sword from the Lady of the lake, Beowulf discovers a sword in the lair beneath the lake, and Cú Chulainn smashes King Conor’s armoury before the king himself presented the nascent hero with his very own weapons while the youthful Arthur plucks the sword from the stone.
A tipping point occurs in all the lives of the heroes when the focus on honour and glory supersedes the needs or bonds of their society. Achilles rejects his mother’s help and chooses to die before the walls of Troy. Cú Chulainn hears the druid’s prophecy of bloody and glory but still chooses to seek the latter. This tipping point influences the remaining portion of the heroes’ life. Every further irrevocable action with the umbrella-like spear, the gae bolga, that Cú Chulainn accepts from the hands of Scáthach maintains or furthers the glorification of his name. Chulainn, in his killing fury, is just as prepared to slaughter his enemies as his compatriots once his battle fury descends upon him.
Mortal enemies of the heroes often involve demonic or supernatural forces as human weapons have little effect upon them, Achilles is dipped in the pool of immortality, Arthur is protected by the power of Excalibur and Cú Chulainn is unassailable when he is in his battle fury. The inevitable downfall of the hero is, therefore, always linked with the breaking of a vow or the forsaking of an oath. Arthur is killed at the hands of his illegitimate son, Cú Chulainn dies alone after breaking the taboos that ruled his life, Beowulf meets his demise by neglecting his role of kingship and acting as if he were still the hero.
Ireland was a different story – relatively untouched by Rome, society there did not change dramatically until the advent of Christianity 500 years later. Groups of Celtic speaking people continued to arrive and leave, bringing with them La Tène styles and influences. Iron Age Celts thus survived in Ireland long after it had been wiped out elsewhere.
Linguists refer to the languages spoken in Britain and Ireland as Insular Celtic which can be further subdivided into Brittonic or P-Celtic and Goidelic or Q-Celtic, as in the table below.
Brittonic or P-Celtic
Goidelic or Q-Celtic,
Whether the ancient Celts can be identified with the Gauls that Caesar defeated, the Insular Celtic languages are closely related to one another and to the other Celtic languages of Europe, now sadly extinct. Although the earliest record of what is now known as Irish dates from the 5th century A.D. in the form of a simple inscription, there is no doubt that Irish is a branch of Celtic which is a branch of Indo-European and Irish cannot have arrived in Ireland before the spread of the Indo European languages.
Despite the similarities and inter-relationships between the Celtic languages, it is not possible to pinpoint the exact origin of Irish. Linguistically speaking, the more similar two languages are to each other, the less time they have spent apart and the languages of Ireland, Britain and Gaul are remarkably similar and related to Proto Celtic.
Obviously, languages like French, Spanish and Italian bear striking similarities, so much so that they can be viewed as cousins, with their parent language being Latin, as spoken during the Roman Empire.
Similarly, Irish can be seen as cousin to Welsh, Cornish and Breton on one hand and to Scots Gaelic and Manx on the other and the original parent language would have been Common Celtic.
A subset of the Proto- Indo European Family of Languages
The shared vocabulary of all Indo European languages, including Celtic, indicates there could have been no separation of the Celtic group into divergent dialects before the development of farming soon after the end of the Stone Age as the ancestors of Indo European flood in from Eastern Europe and Western Asia in four main Language groups – Graeco-Latin along the Mediterranean, the Germanic around the Baltic, the Slavonic in the east and the Celtic in the centre and west. It is impossible to see “Irish” arriving during the Neolithic period as that would postulate a physical split between the earliest speakers of Irish, British and Gaulish back to 4000 BCE.
Equally, it is next to impossible to imagine a Celtic language entering Ireland much before 1000 BCE. Although Ireland was in contact with Britain and Europe for nearly a thousands years prior to this, as seen through the distribution of ceramics, polished stone axes and megalithic tombs, and that link continued throughout the Bronze Age, with the exchange of weapons and ornaments, but again there is no direct evidence for Irish having been introduced as a “trade” language or as a “lingua franca”. Neither Irish nor any other Celtic language have the aspect of a pidgin or trade language nor are they simplified in any way while their respective grammars and vocabularies retain the full range of their Proto-Indo European ancestor.
By 300 BCE, archaeological evidence indicates the spread of La Tène culture and the arrival of small groups or bands but no sign of a major settlement of a foreign population. Nevertheless, the evidence of tribal names suggests that Celtic speakers, both Goidelic and Brittonic with the former gradually subsuming the latter, occupied large areas.
So, if the accounts in the Book of Invasions are discounted as to the origins of the Irish and their language and Irish was not a trade language introduced during the Bronze Age, what is left?
Although multiple opportunities for a language shift in Ireland have been postulated, the one most likely to have been the direct ancestor of Irish aligns itself with the rise of the hill forts from 1000 BCE as the sites assumed significant religious and ceremonial features. The spread of regional centres in areas of Ireland – Crúachan in the west, Eamhain Macha in the north, Dún Ailinne in the east, Cashel in the south and Tara in the middle – might also herald the arrival of a new language.
So, although Irish was not native to Ireland, there would have been Celtic predecessors brought in multiple times by small groups from similar areas of the Atlantic seaboard and Britain who introduced their language, not through warfare but more likely, through having a more productive economy or just by simply outnumbering the sparse native population and whose identity became subsumed under a continuing influx of Celtic people. Bi-lingualism is the first stage when two languages meet and the native Irelanders would have adopted Proto Irish if it had been in their interests to do so.
Languages represent social phenomena with no language being intrinsically superior or inferior to another. Instead, language is used to fulfil essential social contacts in areas such as religion, law, sport, trade, literature and so on. Linguists refer to these social contexts as “language domains”. The new or target language is often linked with specific domains and, in the case of a “proto Irish” arriving in Ireland, the new language must have either filled in an existing domain or else created a need for a new one so that the native inhabitants would have thought it worth their while to embrace the new language.
So, the most probably reason for the adaptation of a “proto-Irish” by native Irelanders was that the new language offered the people access to something they did not have before – perhaps it was a tighter form of social organisation,
based on stratification, feasting, gift giving or some type of social prestige – a warrior elite or a new religion. Traditionally, the spread of world religions often carried with it a new language, Islam and Arabic, for example or Christianity and Latin.
The spread of hill forts and the regional centres they controlled, along with the rise of iron weaponry, leading to a warrior elite such as the Red Branch (Craobh Ruadh), with society forming clearly delineated stratification lines between tribal chiefs, religious leaders or druids, the warrior elites and the trade and craft people all tended to attract the native Irelanders to a new social system and the language that came with it. The overall result might have caused the native “Irelanders” to identify with and behave like the early speakers of “proto Irish”.
So, on the basis of archaeological, linguistic and genetic evidence, it seems most likely that from 1000 BCE, “proto Irish” would have arrived with different Celtic groups, pushed to the fringes of Europe from the inhabited La Tène lands into Britain and then further west into Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Certainly by 100 AD, a Celtic language, the predecessor to the modern Irish language, was in place. Linguistically, Old Irish was a monolithic language, meaning that, if it had been in Ireland for millennia, it would have developed dialects, which it did not do until more recent times.
In conclusion, it seems that the language known today as Irish arrived in Ireland sometime between 1000 – 100 BCE with evidence for both Brittonic and Goidelic groups establishing central foci for existing communities and ultimately providing a means of dividing Ireland up into different social groups, tribes and clans. Nevertheless, it would be nonsense to think of the people then as an Irish nation, the first reference to which only occurred nearly 1800 years later!
Meanwhile, in Europe, Celts originated in central and east-central Europe during the Early Iron Age, about 850 BCE. Various groups or tribes assimilated during the Bronze Age and gradually developed a single culture around the discovery and use of Iron. Referred to as Hallstatt, from an area in Austria where major archaeological finds were discovered, this Celtic culture developed into a major trading centre with the Mediterranean and the Greek port of Massalia (modern day Marseilles).
By about 450 BCE, during the Late Iron Age in Europe, the Hallstatt culture was succeeded by a period known as La Tène after a site in modern day Switzerland. This was a major shift in culture and style focusing on decorative metalwork such as gold torcs and horse gear with iron being cheaper and more available than bronze. Despite later descriptions of the Celts being unruly and warlike, they were predominantly an agricultural and pastoral people and iron plough shares cleared the land more efficiently while iron swords, spears and shields gave them a tactical advantage as their need for farmland kept pace with their growing population and inevitably, groups reached Britain and Ireland.
Further south, Celtic tribes began their expansion over the Alps and into Italy (sacking Rome in 390 BCE) and down through the Balkans, eventually reaching Turkey where they were known as the Galatians (the object of many of St. Paul’s future letters!). The Romans called them Celtae or Galli and the Greeks referred to them as Galatae or Keltoi but it is not clear what they called themselves. The first written reference to them was in Greek c.500 BCE.
By c.600 BCE, during the early Irish Iron Age, the former trade links with Europe apparently collapsed, isolating Ireland from events in Europe. The former communal interdependence relied on Ireland being a source of copper, essential for Bronze Age metallurgy but with iron being relatively widespread in Europe, trade declined. After 600 BCE and before the start of La Tène in Ireland by about 300 BCE, nothing much is known yet it is during this time, from about 300 BCE – 400 AD that the Irish language most probably arrived in Ireland.
The shift from Bronze to Iron technology varied widely within Europe. The majority of metal finds in Ireland from this period were not, in fact iron, most being bronze which remained in widespread use throughout the Irish Iron Age. It was not until the 3rd century BCE, that La Tène items such as ornaments, weapons and tools appeared in Ireland and this Celtic influence may have been the greatest single cause of the creation of both the “Irish” people and their language. This was also the period when Ireland came into regular contact with the Roman world through Roman traders and “Irelanders” travelling to Britain and beyond.
Despite the archaeological evidence, once again there is no direct evidence of a substantial population movement from Europe to Ireland. In fact the opposite seems to have occurred, with the land becoming re-forested and agriculture declining, suggesting a sharp fall in population. Nevertheless, two streams of La Tène culture continued to enter Ireland, the first direct from Europe to the west of Ireland and the later input from Britain to the north.
From 300 – 200 BCE as Roman power extended in the south and east, the Celts were being pressed on the north by the Germanic tribes moving south. Rome continues to squeeze Celtic lands, and by 150 BCE their area of influence continued to decline until Caesar conquered Gaul a century later ending their hegemony and, more slowly but just as surely, the languages of the continental Celts. By 100 – 1BCE only Britain & Ireland retained a Celtic lifestyle.
Celtic Languages of Europe
As a distinct entity, Celtic language and culture were wiped out in Europe. In Britain, Celtic tribes were driven north into Scotland and east into Wales by the numerous incursions, first by the Romans themselves and then later by the Angle and Saxon invasions.