Solstice & Christmas

I love astronomical words like ‘gibbous’ referring to one of the moon’s phases, even though I don’t fully understand what it means in the same way that I haven’t really come to grips with solstices (longest & shortest days?) and equinoxes (equal nights and days?) but I do know that one of them – the summer solstice – is just around the corner.

Falling usually on December 21 or, in this case, on Saturday, 22 December 2018, the summer solstice is the longest day of sunlight we can expect for the next year.

Solstices are specific times on opposite sides (north and south) of the equator, which is the imaginary belt running snugly around the Earth’s belly and thus occur twice a year.

The winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (Europe etc.) is around December 21, the darkest day of the year, while around June 21, is the summer solstice.

It is the exact opposite here, of course, in the Southern Hemisphere (Down Under). During the December solstice, which is summer here, the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn (another imaginary band around the Earth’s knees, as it were) and has reached its southern-most position on the globe, when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the Sun.

The Solstice is actually at a specific moment – when the Sun is exactly over the Tropic of Capricorn, (latitude 23° 30′ South), and occurs at 06:23 in Perth, West Australia, this year.

The summer and winter solstices were crucial points of reference for ancient civilizations, including the Celts.   Only the druids who had angled their sacred sites so that they either faced, or stood, in a geometrical relationship to the rising sun of the solstice, could reveal the paths of heavenly bodies, showing the workings of the universe and the designs of the gods as the solstice is one of the two times of the year when the sun rises and sets in almost exactly the same place, several days in a row

The term solstice comes from the Latin word solstitium, meaning ‘the Sun stands still’, because on this day, the Sun reaches its southern-most position as seen from the Earth. The Sun seems to stand still at the Tropic of Capricorn and then reverses its direction. Some cultures referred to this period as the day the Sun turns around.

Ancient people are thought to have seen the sun rising and setting ever further to the north or south and to have assumed that, without a good deal of prayer, procession and bloody sacrifice, it would either get stuck in the same place – with disastrous consequences for agriculture – or, worse, continue in the same direction until it disappeared for ever. Absolute nonsense of course, given that these self same Neolithic peoples built enormous, astronomically aligned stone temples so that their priests, and spiritual leaders could guide their peoples through the obligatory festivals and celebrations of the astronomical events of the year.

Both Greece and Rome revered the sun with Hercules seen as a sun god. His twelve labours were equated with the twelve constellations of the zodiac through which the sun passes in the course of a year while Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, was the official sun god of the later Empire of Rome.

Emperor Aurelian reintroduced the sun god and cult in 274 A.D. The Emperor Constantine the Great, with the Edict of Toleration, proclaimed at Milan, made Christianity legal throughout the Roman Empire in 313 A.D., but continued to have his coins inscribed with the words, “Sol Invicto Comiti”, which means Committed to the Invincible Sun. Accordingly, Constantine’s adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire was more likely a matter of political strategy than religious conviction.

St. Patrick (the patron saint of Ireland) blended pre-Christian, pagan beliefs onto his brand of Roman Christianity introduced to Ireland c. 432A.D. by taking druidic beliefs in the sun god, Lugh and fashioning them into orthodox Christianity. The addition of a circle (the wheel – like the pocket-sized votive wheels still found in Celtic sanctuaries – was a symbol of the sun. The eight spokes are thought to represent the cardinal points and the rising and setting of the sun at the summer and winter solstices) onto the Christian cross became the commonly recognised Celtic Cross, bringing together elements of paganism and Christianity.

So too were dates chosen to offset pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Natalis Invicti. In ancient Rome, the winter solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days. The festival was held to honour Saturn, the father of the gods and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. The date of Christmas itself celebrating the birth of the “true light of the world” was aligned with the December solstice because from that point onwards the days began to have more daylight in the Northern Hemisphere. Mind you, what that has to do with anything is anyone’s guess.

Happy Solstice (winter or summer, wherever you are) and a very happy Christmas to all.

 

 

 

Prologue

I haven’t done an audio recording of Raiding Cooley for a while – and it would feel a bit too strange to do a video recording of me reading, so I think I’ll give that a miss for now.

Anyway, trying to decide what to read – whether to begin at the beginning or just pick a point at random, like I’ve done before.

OK, the very, very, very beginning.

The Prologue outlines the reasons why the Triple Goddess of War cursed the warriors of the Ulaidh Kingdom in Celtic Ireland, thereby setting the scene for the future consequences of the curse, and, incidentally, the beginning of the story proper, about 450 years later. Imperial Rome is still occupied with subduing the Celts in Gaul and Teutonics in northern Rhineland in 57 BCE but Caesar is already planning the first invasion of Britain. Ireland, while sharing extensive linguistic, cultural and extensive trade links with both Britain and Europe, remains a land of mystery, remote from Roman rule.

Who are the Irish & Where did their Language come from? Part Two

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

Gaulish Galatian Lepontic Hispano Celtic Tartesian
P-Celtic P-Celtic P-Celtic Q-Celtic Q-Celtic

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.

Wine and Amphorae

“Adds its own seasoning to food, cutting the richness of fat, making meat seem more tender and washing down pulses and unleavened bread without distending the belly” Hugh Johnson – The Story of Wine.

Southern Italy picked up the wine growing tradition from Greece where wine was often diluted with water or even seawater! In Homer, Odysseus got the one-eyed Cyclops pissed on strong Maronean red wine. Poor ol’ Cyclops was only used to weak Sicilian wine made from unpruned wild grapes. Scythian wine was so hard that Ovid claimed an axe was needed to cut it! Greek wine wisdom warned that one bowl was good for health, two for pleasure and love, three for sleep, four for violence, five for uproar, six for drunken revel, seven for black eyes, eight for peace officers involvement, nine for biliousness and the tenth for madness and the hurling of furniture.

Throughout the first century BCE the best quality wine was the white and sweet Opinium vintage. The most famous grapes were grown between Rome and Sorrento at the vineyard of Falernum where the wine came in three varieties – dry, sweet and light. A strong wine, Falernian’s colour varied from amber to brown when matured in the amphorae. Following on in terms of quality was Caecuban, followed by the wines of Alba, just south of Rome, while Trebellian came from Naples.

An amphora was a slender clay vase with two handles and a long neck. The base was either pointed or formed into a knob, but never flat. Sizes varied. Greek amphorae averaged about 40 litres, Roman amphorae = 26 litres or so. Potters made the amphorae in several sections, and then the wet sections were moulded together and the base pared down to a point or a knob, making it easier to lift and tip with the point acting as a third handle. Stamp of origin pressed into the wet clay of their handles. The mouth of the jar was sealed with cork or wax and resin. Ships could carry 2000 – 3000 amphorae at a time, the pointed ends buried in a bed of sand and the handles tied together to keep them steady on the trip from Pompeii up to Rome

Bordeaux was a perfect port for wine distribution to Britain and Ireland. A ‘negotiator Britannicuus” was identified on the wharf in the 1st century BC. Both Britain and Ireland had long had an active maritime trade based on the tin wealth of Cornwall, and the gold and copper found in Ireland, Bronze Age requirements for the growth in metallurgy.

Wine routes to Britain, varied widely. A long sea journey around Spain, overland to Bordeaux and then by sea, via the rivers – the Loire, the Seine and the Rhine and finally via the Moselle which was much more expensive than the sea route around Spain. Britons possibly bought the surplus from the Roman garrisons or, more likely, the amphorae were emptied of their southern contents and refilled with inferior, local German wines.

The Celts, as a race, seemed inordinately fond of drinking and, according to Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BCE, “they sate themselves with the unmixed wines imported by the merchants; their desire makes them drink greedily and when they become drunk, they fall into a stupour or into a maniacal disposition.” Poseidonius, writing sometime between 135 and 51 BCE claimed, “the drink of the wealthy classes is wine imported from Italy or from the region around Massalia…”

The city, modern day Marseilles, thrived by acting as a link between inland Gaul, hungry for Roman goods and wine (which Massalia was steadily exporting by 500 BCE) and Rome’s insatiable need for new products and slaves.

The great bronze vase of Vix, found in the tomb of a Burgundian princess at Vix who died in about 600 BC could hold 1200 litres or approximately 45 amphorae with the going price of an amphora equal to one (female) slave!

Of course, not all wine was drunk, often it was often used as an antiseptic for wounds although Druids disapproved of wine!

 

 

 

 

 

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Celtic Iron Age Chariots

cropped-img_0322_edited1.jpg

According to Caesar, the European Celts made wide use of chariots in warfare with a warrior standing behind the seated driver. The Celts extolled virtues in a chariot driver such as turning in a tight circle, backing up straight and leaping over chasms. Caesar also claimed to witness reckless and dangerous feats such as the warrior running along the pole to stand on the yoke of the horses or the driver urging the horses to jump logs and ditches at full speed. The latter, a back and neck-breaking stunt if performed in a farm-cart, might work with a chariot if it had a flexible spring suspension allowing the vehicle to actually lift off the ground. So, what were the chariots like and how were they used?

Rather than use the chariots as an attack vehicle, they were more likely to be used as a mode of delivery to the battle line. Racing up and down between the opposing forces, warriors would bellow out their battle cries and challenges above the roar of the heavy iron rimmed wheels, to intimidate their opposite number before dismounting and advancing on foot to accept an offer of single combat. The chariot driver would then retreat to a safe distance and wait for the return of victorious warrior or make ready for a speedy retreat if things went badly.

Made from sturdy ash wood, apart from the one-piece, iron rimmed wheels, which was probably a Celtic innovation – and hub fittings, chariots had double arched sides with the main frame lashed to the axle and the pole using wet rawhide which shrank tight, pulling joints together securely. Inside the arched sides was a Y shaped rawhide strap suspending an independent platform within the main frame. Leather slings supporting a carriage body were a tried and tested method of suspension and were still widely used in the stagecoaches of the Wild West.

chariotThe wooden spoked wheels were positioned beyond the edge of the body, offering greater stability and better cornering while the hilly, bumpy, boggy and rutted rough terrain made the need for a driver to be seated as he would have had a lower centre of gravity, adding to the overall stability.

The internal platform frame, again made from ash, was suspended from the main frame by leather straps and supported by two underneath battens fastened to the Y straps. A long strip of rawhide made the warp and weft of the platform, on which the warrior would stand, giving just the right amount of give and springiness to counteract a rough ride.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence of the Irish Celts ever having used chariots but I am afraid historical accuracy did not prevent me from making extensive use of chariots, as evidenced in the following excerpt from the chapter Claiming Emer in Part Two of my novel, Raiding Cúailnge.

Laeg hopped onto the open front of the chariot, taking the reins in his left hand, his right shoulder against the right forward side arch of ash wood with one foot braced against the opposite arch, his right foot extended onto the pole leading to the yoked ponies. At a nod from Sétanta, he expertly guided the light chariot over the coarse grassed, bumpy plain, rutted with old chariot tracks, to the north of Brúgh na Bóinne and forded the Boann river heading south towards Luglochta Logo, the iron-shod wooden wheels sending up gouts of water on either side of the chariot, drenching Sétanta, who balanced easily on the interwoven strips of rawhide which made up the springy strap work floor.

“Hold on,” shouted Laeg, the cold wind whipping his long hair back as he urged the ponies on and over the first of the horizontal logs which made up the corrugated trackway of oaken beams laid over the boggy ground stretching before them. Sétanta grunted and allowed his knees to bend slightly to counteract the jolting although the rawhide straps supporting the body of the chariot provided a rough suspension.

Illustration: British Museum.