Celtic Traditions and the Summer Solstice

Please help me welcome our guest today, John Cunningham, owner of Celtic Cross Online, which sells jewelry handmade in Ireland. He’s here with a wonderful infographic to help us celebrate the Summer Solstice, which is today in the northern hemisphere.

Did you know that this year the Summer Solstice will be celebrated on June 20? What is the Summer Solstice exactly? It occurs when the axial tilt of the earth is at its closest to the sun. This means it has more daylight hours than any other day of the year and it is known by many as the longest day of the year!

The Celtic people considered it a very special day and celebrated it in many ways. The Celts used ‘Natural Time’ which they took from Solstices and Equinoxes so that they could determine the seasons. It was their belief that it was a time to honor their Goddess who has many different names depending on which Celtic region they were in. For example, in France she was Epona, but in Ireland she was Etain.

The Celts believed that evil spirits would be banished during this time and that as a result their harvest would be in abundance. They celebrated with great bonfires, feasts and dancing. For a visual depiction of Celtic Traditions around the Summer Solstice, have a look at this infographic produced by Celtic Cross Online.

Top 10 Fun Facts: the Roman Celts


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following last week’s post on the Celts, I decided that the Celts during the Roman occupation deserved their own Top 10 List. (BTW for those who care about this kind of thing, I referred to the Celts as Roman in the title because that will be the easiest for SEO, but the proper term is Romano-British.)

  1. Part of the Empire –  After the Romans conquered Britain, the native rulers became what we would call “client kings.” This meant they had the same allies and enemies as Rome and couldn’t form new ones without the sanction of Rome. Usually tribal leaders sought this status (rather than being compelled into it) because it meant Roman protection and trading rights. In return, the king/chieftain supplied men, money and supplies for the Roman army, but the people didn’t have to pay taxes until the kingdom was annexed.  (Southern)
  2. Your job is what? – Slaves were a sign of extra wealth that could be wasted on trivial tasks. While they could be used in the home, fields, or mines, slaves could also be things as silly as a lamp bearer, scavenger or even employed to call out the time, point out obstacles in the road or greet their master’s friends for him/her. (Alcock)
  3. Moving day – After the conquest, some people who lived in hill forts were forced to relocate to a new town so that Roman authorities could keep an eye on them. This also served to help introduce them to Roman ways. (Alcock)
  4. The mines were no joke – Being a miner was a punishment because it was so dangerous. One in eight miners died each year. (Lawrence)
  5. Place your bets…or not –  Gambling was illegal except on Saturnalia, but many people did it anyway. They placed bets on sporting events big and small, even a coin toss where the sides were called “heads” and “ships.” (Lawrence)
  6. In the army now – The Romans conscripted conquered people from across the empire to serve in their army as a way of subduing hostile tribes. They were auxiliaries (non-citizen soldiers). They were often sent outside their home country or tribal boundary so they couldn’t raise rebellion in their homeland. (Lawrence)
  7. Before the Magic 8-ball – Romans practiced a form of divination called haruspicy, which was the reading of animal entrails to foretell the future. (Rupke)
  8. Crime and punishment – Capital offenses for soldiers included running away from battle, striking or wounding and officer, insubordination and inciting mutiny. The punishment for rape was to cut off the nose of the perpetrator. (Southern)
  9. Weights and measures – Rome brought an organized system of measure to British trade. The basic unit was the libra (pound) which was equal to 327 grams. One libra equaled 12 unicae or ounces. (Lawrence)
  10. On the road again – The Romans built 8,000 miles of roads during their first 60 years in Britain. Roman roads were straight unless there was a major obstacle in the way. They even leveled small hills and built causeways over wet land. The military maintained them near the forts, but in other areas it was the responsibility of the town and local leaders. (Lawrence)

Alcock, Joan. Life in Roman Britain.
Lawrence, Richard Russel. Roman Britain.
Rupke, Jorg. A Companion to Roman Religion
Southern, Patricia. Roman Britain: New History 55 BC – 450 AD

What do you know about Britain under Roman rule? What questions do you have?

Another Top 10 Fun Facts About the Celts

This is Soay ewe. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This is Soay ewe. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

One of my most popular posts of all time is A Celtic Primer (Top 10 Fun Facts). Since that one was such a hit, I thought I’d give an encore. This post, like it’s predecessor, focuses on the British Celts before the coming of Rome. (I’ve listed the source at the end of each one, just in case you want to learn more.)

  1. The term Celts, as commonly used, is a misnomer – The Celts were not a single race, but a people defined by their language, which dates back to the eighth – sixth century BC. Q Celtic is a version where the “qu” sound is pronounced as “k” but written as “c.” P Celtic replaced the “qu” sound with a “p.” This may have been brought to Britain during the Neolithic period. and is the basis of the native language of the Britons. (Alcock, Daily)
  2. The Celts spoke multiple languages. Most British Celts were bilingual within a generation of the 43 AD Roman conquest, speaking their native dialect at home and Latin for business. It’s also believed that the Druids knew Greek. (Southern)
  3. Female slaves were an actual unit of measure. A female slave was called a cumal in Medieval Irish law. A cumal is a unit of measure equivalent to 3 oz of silver or 8-10 cows. (Wyatt)
  4. Sheep are more interesting than you think. The early Celts kept a type of sheep called Soay (see right, they still exist) that shed their wool naturally (who knew?), though shearing, which took place in May, produced a softer wool. They were plucked by hand until the Iron Age invention of the shears. (Alcock, Daily and Life, Lawrence)
  5. Names held great importance. The Celts believed that to name a thing was to give it power. A Celt had two names: a personal name and that of his/her father, which is like having a first and last name. (Lawrence) For example, I would be Nicole, daughter of Richard. (Many times the father’s name included a characteristic like “the bold” or “the brave.”)
  6. Beware their women drivers… The early Celts fought in chariots with a pair of small horses (which had their tails and manes plaited to avoid tangling in the reins). Each chariot had three people: a driver, archer and spearman. Boudicca is famous for this method of fighting. (Moffat)
  7. I can see how this Wolfhound could do a man in... (By Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927) (Druck ca. 1920) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

    I can see how this Wolfhound could do a man in… (By Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927) (Druck ca. 1920) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

    Dogs were more than pets. The Celts used wolfhounds, which some say were the world’s tallest dogs, in war and hunting. In war, they could not only brutally attack the enemy, but once the enemy threw their spears at them, they (the enemy) were rendered defenseless. (Duffy)
  8. Barter wasn’t their only method of payment. The use of coins may have come about in Britain as a result of trade with Greece. We know coins of the Belgae came to Britain before they started making their own. The first British minted coins were in 100-70 BC. (Alcock, Daily and Cunliffe)
  9. The Celts could float your boat. Traditional Celtic boats were hollowed out logs or coracles, leather or skin stretched over a light wood frame. There is reason to believe that the British Celts may have modeled larger vessels after  the Veneiti of Gaul, who had a large fleet of ships they used to trade with Britain. These had flatter bottoms to sail in shallow water, high bows and sterns to sail in rough seas and gales, and sails made of raw hides or leather.  (Lawrence and Alcock, Daily)
  10. Cooking happened even before the cauldron. One early method is the potboil, in which stones were heated and  placed in a trough of water, which has been proven to cook food just as well as heating over a central cauldron (which came later). Fish could be wrapped in river clay, left to dry, put in a shallow pit filled with hot firewood and left to bake. (J Alcock, Daily) 


Alcock, Joan. Daily life of the Pagan Celts
—–  Life in Roman Britain.
Cunliffe, Barry. Iron Age Communities in Britain.
Duffy, Kevin. Who Were the Celts?
Lawrence, Richard Russel. Roman Britain.
Moffat, Alistair. The Borders.
Southern, Patricia. Roman Britain: New History 55 BC – 450 AD
Wyatt, David. Slaves and Warriors in Medieval Britain

Do you have questions about the Celts? If so, leave them in the comments or hit me up by email and I’ll see if I can answer them.

The Training of a Pictish Warrior

Caledonian Pict by Iantresman via Wikimedia Commons [public domain]

Caledonian Pict by Iantresman via Wikimedia Commons [public domain]

If you’re anything like me, when you hear the word “Pict,” you automatically think of Braveheart, or warriors who are similar. Even with all the research that I’ve done, that’s my brain’s default image (thank you Hollywood). While that movie has a lot to answer for in the area of historical authenticity, it did do one thing right: it showed us how fierce the warriors of the north were. And the movie takes place many generations after the Picts.

So, what would their ancestors have been like? As I’ve said ad nauseam, one of the frustrating things about pre-Conquest history is the lack of solid evidence. But I have found a few good accounts of the training of a Pictish warrior and I thought you may like to know what all they went through to become so feared.

Like most other peoples of the time, warriors were rarely trained by their parents, but sent out to other houses in a system of fosterage that not only benefited the warrior, who learned from a seasoned hero, but promoted bonds of peace and trust among families and clans/tribes. According to The Pictish Warrior AD 297-841, warriors (likely both men and women, at least for a time, although the book focuses on men) began their training somewhere between age seven (Ireland) and ten (in the Highlands). They were expected to master these feats:

  • Dexterity (juggling swords)
  • Strength
  • Voice (the hero’s cry – not described, but I’m thinking it was some kind of blood-curdling battle cry, since historical sources document that the enemies of the Picts were frightened by the savage sounds they made. Another source says they purposefully learned to imitate the sounds of animals to frighten their enemies.)
  • Weapons handling
  • The spear vault (where a spear is placed in the ground butt-first and the warrior jumps up and performs on its point). This seems nearly impossible to me, but I’ve also never seen it attempted. I’ve also read this term to mean a way of mounting a horse where a person takes a running start and uses the spear as a pole to vault onto horseback. There’s beautiful depiction of this in Manda Scott’s historical fiction Boudicca: Dreaming the Eagle.

Training wasn’t all based in physical strength. They also learned more refined skills. According to the folktales “four and twenty games of the Britons,” all young warriors were expected to learn:

  • Six feats of activity (hurling weights, running, leaping, swimming, wrestling and riding)
  • Four exercises of weapons (archery or javelin throwing, sword, sword and buckler, and quarterstaff)
  • Three rural sports (hunting, fishing and hawking)
  • Seven domestic games (poetry, music, heraldry, diplomacy, etc.)
  • Four board games (no examples are given, but there is precedent in Arthurian legend that a game very similar to chess was played)

They also played ancient games like shinty to simulate fast-moving battle scenarios. At night, the warriors in training played strategy games. At the end of their training, warriors had to prove their skill by participating in a cattle raid in which they brought home some sort of proof of valor (possibly even the head of an enemy) or passing another type of test.

In my third Guinevere book, I’ve chosen to graft these Pictish practices onto the Votadini tribe (one of the four tribes living south of the Highlands in between Hadrian’s and Antonine Walls) because we have even fewer records of them than the Picts. As tribes literally caught between two worlds (the Britons and the Picts), I think it logical to assume their culture drew from both.

Correction: This post as been updated to delete erroneous information from the source material. John Matthews kindly pointed out that salmon leap was specifically learned by the Red Branch heroes of Ireland (not the Picts) and that the caber toss came into being with the establishment of the Highland Games in the the 19th century. My thanks to him for these corrections!

Source: Pictish Warrior AD 297-841 by Paul Wagner

What else do you know about the training of the Picts? Do you know of any good sources on the subject? What do you think about what I’ve recounted here?

Why I Wouldn’t Survive a Celtic Winter

Recreated Celtic Village, Museum of Welsh Life. The open fire within the circular hut gives the thatched roof a "steaming" effect. Three round wattle-and-daub huts are surrounded by a ditch and wooden palisade. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Recreated Celtic Village, Museum of Welsh Life. The open fire within the circular hut gives the thatched roof a “steaming” effect. Three round wattle-and-daub huts are surrounded by a ditch and wooden palisade. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I would never survive a Celtic winter, or quite frankly, a winter in any other time period. I know this because of a series of recent events that temporarily suspended some of the modern conveniences I’ve realized I can’t live without.

Some of you may have heard that the Midwest has been experiencing unusually cold temperatures. That’s where this whole story starts. As I write this, we’re in our fourth round of sub-zero wind chill temperatures in as many weeks, which is not normal for us. In the first round, thanks to a frozen (but not burst, thank God) water pipe, I discovered that there was a hole in my wall where the previous owner left an old dryer vent completely open to the outside.

As I stuffed it with rags and waited for my dad to be able to remove it and patch the wall (I am not a handy person), I started wondering how anyone in the past survived such brutal cold with only a smoky fire and layers and layers of wool and fur for warmth. What must the Celtic roundhouses have been like if there was a hole in the thatch? How air tight were they anyway? Or what about the soldiers who had to stand guard on walls in gusty winds like the ones currently shaking my house? They must have been made of stronger stuff than I.

If the hole wasn’t enough, a few days later I fell asleep in the bathtub, only to wake up to wet hair, cooled water and no hot water to rinse off with. As I stood shaking in my cold bathroom, trying to suds myself up with lukewarm water, I gained a whole new appreciation for winter bathing. And I’m willing to bet my 69 degree bathroom was warmer than most of the rooms were the Celts cleaned themselves. In spite of my research, I had held on to a fantasy that boiling water to bathe in and drying hair by the fire would be enough. Perhaps some did bathe this way, but I now understand why winter was not the time for immersing oneself for a full bath.

And then there was the fast. I did a 10 day detox where I couldn’t have dairy, wheat, sugar, caffeine or alcohol. I was okay with most of it, but the lack of dairy about killed me. (I love cheese and milk.) That got me thinking that Celtic winters must have been very boring times to eat, since from the time of the slaughter in October through the beginning of February, when the ewes started to give birth, there would have been no milk or butter. (This is why the feast of Candlemas/Imbolc was agriculturally important.) Maybe there was some old or aging cheese. There would have been few fruits and vegetables – maybe some turnips or other root veggies, some wizened apples and whatever was preserved. On the other side, fresh meat would have become more and more rare as winter wore on, leaving preserved meat (ugh, jerky) and salt fish as the options. As long as grain stores held out, there would have been bread and maybe porridge in good supply, but that hardly qualifies as a tasty meal.

And then I had company last week. I slept on a sofa bed so my guest could sleep in my bed. I ended up having to put an extra cushion on top so that I could sleep. It made me wonder how people slept on the cold, hard ground, or on straw pallets for most of history. I really am the princess with the pea.

Couple all of this with long swaths of time stuck indoors with bored men aching for action that winter didn’t allow and I’m willing to bet a Celtic hall wasn’t that much fun. For most of the population, the animals not culled for the winter lived in the same rooms with the people. Even in noble household with separate buildings for animals, the hunting dogs (and perhaps a barnyard cat or two) would have vied for warmth in front of the fire with the humans. Long, dark nights, dreary days lit only by a central fire, rush light or tallow candles (a fortunate few would have had beeswax), smoke, unwashed bodies, drafts, poor nutrition, restlessness and soiled rushes do not paint a fun image of winter.

Because of my area of study, I place this in the Celtic world, but really, it was true for most of history. I know it’s completely different taking away a few conveniences from a modern girl than growing up without them, but I have a whole new respect for my ancestors now. How any of them survived to produce a fading little flower like me, I’ll never know. All I do know is they would be ashamed of what I consider hardship (#firstworldproblems).

Today, I’m counting my blessings a little closer and joining the people of old in wishing for spring to come quickly.

What about you? How would you have fared in a Celtic winter? How do you think they would have lived?

Celtic Burial and Funeral Rites

Portal Tomb byBy KHoffmanDC via Wikimedia Commons

Portal Tomb (source: Wikimedia Commons)

A few weeks ago, a college student from Spain contacted me asking for information on Celtic funeral/burial rites. This student was in luck because I had researched this for a scene that was supposed to be in book 2, but has now been put aside for a future separate book. As with the last student that contacted me, I realized I’ve never done a blog post on this topic, so here we go.

As usual, my research focuses on Britain, but I will include what I’ve found for Ireland and Scotland, too. (Someday, I need to do more research on those two countries.)

Celtic Views of Death and Dying
For a warrior people, it’s not surprising that to the Celts, the most honorable death was to die in battle. Depending on the time period and which tribe you were in, you might be buried, cremated or have your ashes buried. In pre-Christian times, many graves contained items needed for the next world, from chariots and weapons to food, wine, money and clothing. There is some evidence that the Celts practiced human sacrifice, but not likely on a large scale.

The Celts believed in reincarnation. Some sources say they only believed you could come back in human form, but others argue you could be reincarnated as an animal or plant, too. Mythology seems to support this later theory (look at the many incarnations of Taliesin). In mythology, the Cauldron of Rebirth was able to revive the dead. Interestingly, some sources day they believed in after death judgment of your actions, while others say no such retribution existed in the Celtic belief system. Pre-Christian Celts believed in an after-death Otherworld (Annwn in Welsh mythology), a resting place between incarnations.It was a heaven-like paradise. There, the dead wore gowns of silver and gold and gold bands around their waists and necks and jeweled circlets on their brows.

Pre-Roman Britain
According to the poems of Homer and the accounts of Caesar, on the Continent the Celtic dead were burned on a pyre. Sheep and oxen were slain and their fat was placed on the body, their carcasses around it. Jars of honey and oil placed around the body. Beloved horses, dogs and slaves were slain, their bodies piled on top. The whole was lit on fire. The dead were addressed by name and people wailed in mourning. When the fire was extinguished with wine, the “whitened bones” were taken out and laid in a gold urn. The urn was then buried with a mound over it. There is no record of this practice in the myths of Britain or Ireland.

However, we do know that a body was washed and wrapped in a death shirt, called an Eslene. The body was laid out with burning candles or rushes around it in the home for seven days. People would keen over the dead and/or praise him or her. Three days after the body was laid out, a feast/games was held in his/her honor. The body had a bowl placed on the chest into which people would place food and coins for the dead to use in the next life.

On the morning of burial, a Druid came with a rod called a “fey” or “fe.” It was made of Aspen with Ogham letters and symbols carved into it. It was used to measure the body to ensure a proper fit within the final resting place. It was said that if you looked at the fey, your death was unavoidable because it had already measured you. Some sources also say the Druid would whisper to the dead person, giving him/her instructions on how to get to the next world. If the person was murdered or otherwise died without the presence of a Druid, they would still try to speak to the spirit to guide it.

Burial customs varied by tribe. Animal sacrifice and grave goods are both mentioned in British and Irish mythology and supported by archaeological finds, so it’s likely this was at one time part of the ritual.

Roman Britain
I believe it’s a safe assumption that under Roman rule, the Britons adopted Roman burial practices. Roman graveyards were usually located outside of the city. Romans practiced inhumation (burial) rather than cremation. They set up memorial stones (kind of like our headstones) to mark the resting place of the dead, but these weren’t always done of out love; sometimes they served to warn passersby of plague or other ways they could die in a nearby town. (Pleasant thought, isn’t it?)

These memorial markers usually followed a prescribed pattern:  They always began by addressing the god of the shades/death, then talked about the life of the dead person, and ended with the name of the person to commissioned the marker. Some were very elaborate in their stories of the dead, while others were simple memorials.

The Romans are thought to have been a major influence on Christianity coming to Britain. There is some evidence of continuity of burial sites from pagan to Christian. This may have been due to paying respect to ancestors or the areas may simply have been well-known. By the fourth century, many pagan and Christian burials were found side by side in Britain.

Post-Roman Britain
With the fall of the Roman Empire, burial practices took on what we would come to see as a distinctly Christian tone. Cemeteries were allowed inside of cities, and became a communal meeting place, with churches springing up in their midst, as we think of today. Some churchyards had special areas in the northern corner reserved for murder victims and soldiers who died in battle, none of whom would have received last rites.

Graves were oriented west-east. West was the direction of the Otherworld and also Christians believed that this positioning allowed the dead to face Christ when he raised them on Resurrection Day. Single person burials were the norm, with the dead person’s head facing west. Sometimes a mother and child were buried together, but mass graves were not common. Grave goods were not found during this time. Bodies could have been laid in the bare earth, in a stone coffin or a hollowed out log, but coffins were rare.

I can’t find any evidence that details a Celtic Christian funeral rite (if you know of any sources, please tell me!), but from context it appears they were very similar to what takes place in the Roman Catholic religion today, which isn’t too surprising given how little liturgy has changed in its basic components within the Catholic Church.

There was a very early (pre-history) practice of piling stones over the dead person’s body rather than digging a grave. Later in time, the Irish buried their dead in three types of tombs:

  1. Portal tomb: A number of upright stones covered by one or two capstones and sometimes placed in a long or round mound.
  2. Passage tomb: Round mounds with burial chambers in the center which were reached by a passage leading in from the edge of the mound.
  3. Wedge tombs (found in area of Munster): A type of chamber tomb where the chamber narrows at one end.

These could hold either bodies or ashes from cremation. When the body was buried, the arms of the dead person could be loose at the sides or placed over the pubic area. The Irish did not use a burial shroud until around the 700s.

Compared to other areas, there is less evidence of Pictish burial customs. There are four main types of graves:

  1. Cairns – Burial mounds
  2. Cists – Stone lined burial chambers
  3. Barrows – Mounds of earth or stone built up over bodies
  4. Platform graves – A flat, wide circular mound (sometimes surrounded by a ditch).

The Picts buried their dead in a supine position. Scottish graves have been found with scattered small white stones (quartz), believed to ease the passage to the afterlife.

Who Were the Celts? by Kevin Duffy
Pre-Christian Ireland by Peter Harbison
The Everything Guide to Evidence of the Afterlife by Joseph M. Higgins, Chuck Bergman
A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland by Patrick Weston Joyce
The Archaeology of Celtic Britain and Ireland: C.AD 400 – 1200 by Lloyd Laing
Untitled article, S. McSkimming, Dalriada Magazine, 1992
Celtic Burial Rites by Alexander MacBain
The Britons by Christopher A Synder
Celtic Daily Life by Victor Walkley
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Volume 18, p 286-291
Burial Customs Life in the First Millennium A.D.
Roman Death Monuments

Do you have questions about Celtic burial practices? If so, please share them in the comments. What do you know about Celtic burial customs? Have you seen any of the types of graves mentioned above?

Celtic Weapons and Armor

Celtic warrior`s garments, replicas. In the museum Kelten-Keller, Rodheim-Bieber, Germany. By Gorinin  via Wikimedia Commons

Celtic warrior`s garments, replicas. In the museum Kelten-Keller, Rodheim-Bieber, Germany. By Gorinin via Wikimedia Commons

I recently received a very sweet note from a sixth grade girl named Trinity, asking for help with a project she’s doing on King Arthur. Her questions were specifically around weapons and armor and it occurred to me that I’ve never done a blog post dedicated specifically to that topic. So this is an expansion of the information I sent her. (Best of luck, Trinity!)

As with all other generalizations about the Celts, sources contradict one another and the information will vary depending on time period and place. For purposes of this post, I’m focusing on Britain during the time period of my novels, approximately 400-550 AD/CE.

The Celts wore trousers, tunics and cloaks into battle. The early Celts did not wear armor, but later on armor was most likely a leather jerkin. As time went on, some fought protected by a type a bronze plate. But it is possible they also used a type of chain mail, which the Celts actually invented. What is not known is when it stopped being used. The web site ancientmilitary.com mentions Ceannlann armor, “a layer of metal scales sewn onto linen which is in turn sown on to chain armor creating a very effective multilayer armor that could cover the entire body.” (I have not been able to back this up with other sources. If you know of any, please tell me.)

As for the tradition that they fought naked? Perhaps it was all hogwash. Maybe it was true at some point, or true of some of the tribes and not others, but from what I can tell, most of the time, they fought clothed and at least lightly armored. Given the success of the Celtic armies over the centuries, I tend to believe they used armor.


Celtic horned helmet now in the British Museum (150-50 BC: from the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge, London, England). The helmet is made from sheet bronze pieces held together with many carefully placed bronze rivets. It is decorated with the style of La Tène art used in Britain between 250 and 50 BC.  Via Wikimedia Commons

Celtic horned helmet now in the British Museum (150-50 BC: from the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge, London, England). The helmet is made from sheet bronze pieces held together with many carefully placed bronze rivets. It is decorated with the style of La Tène art used in Britain between 250 and 50 BC. Via Wikimedia Commons

As with armor, at first the Celts fought without helmets. When they did adopt them, the helmets seem to have been metal and looked a lot like a Roman’s helmet (some say the Romans intimated the Celtic helmets, others argue it was the other way around) or they may have had horns (there is one in the British Museum that has horns, but it is from the Iron Age).

They carried large shields made of wood, bronze or leather, which could have been rectangular in shape or cone-shaped with a boss in the middle meant to catch the opponent’s weapon. The shields were tall enough to cover them from the shoulder to the knee.

The Celts’ favorite weapon was the spear. There were two kinds: a light one that they could throw like a javelin, and a heavier version that was used in close contact battle for thrusting, more like a lance. These were the weapons par excellence for most of Celtic history.

Their second favorite weapon was a sword. At least in early times, the Celtic sword probably would have been smaller than the broadswords we think of from the Middle Ages. It was likely more like the Roman short swords. As time went on, swords got longer and heavier. Alcock notes that the Irish and Picts were known to fight with extremely long (20-22 inch) double-edged swords. (He also reports that the Saxons fought with two-handed swords up to 36 inches long.) These were meant for one-handed fighting (stalling and slashing) and intimidation of your opponent. I’m no fencing expert, but it stands to reason that longer swords were less effective the closer your opponent was, given the space it took to wield them.

The Celts also fought with slings (slingshots that launched rocks and other projectiles), and bows and arrows, as well as axes and daggers. Duffy also mentions a “javelin-like weapon called a Madaris (84),” but I haven’t been able to find any additional information on that weapon.

Kings, Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests: Britain AD 550-850 by Leslie Alcock
Who Were the Celts? by Kevin Duffy
Pictish Warrior AD 297-841 by Paul Wagner

What have your heard, read or seen about the Celts in battle? What do you think is true? What questions do you have?

The Celts in Britain circa 470 AD

Roman Britain in 410 A.D.

Roman Britain in 410 A.D.

We’ve talked a lot about the Celts here – their culture, religion, what they ate, in what kinds of houses/castles they may have lived – but I don’t think we’ve ever touched on exactly what the Celtic world looked like in the period of my novels (roughly 470 – 530 AD) and who lived where.

First of call, the Celts would not have called themselves Celts. That is an outside term from the Greek “Keltoi” or Latin “Celtae.” The Celts may have referred to themselves as Brythons or Britons. (They were not called English until after the rise of the Anglo Saxons later on in history.)

The term “Pict” meant “the painted people” and was used by outsiders to refer to anyone north of the Forth-Clyde line, an area that’s come to be called the Highlands. The Picts probably would have called themselves Cruithni, which translates into “the native people.” Their neighbors to the south usually called them Prydein or Priteni.

In Britain, there were many, many tribes (complete listing and some cool maps here) and kingdoms, but to summarize about the people, there were:

  • The Saxons – This map doesn’t show it because it’s before the major influx of Anglo-Saxons, but by the end of the fifth century, pretty much the entire eastern coast from Dover up to Hadrian’s Wall was inhabited by the Saxons, who relentlessly kept pushing north and east. Within a century or so, they would gain influence over most of the country, driving the Celtic people into what is now Wales and Cornwall or forcing them to emigrate to Brittany.
  • The Romanized Celts– Most of the country, roughly the areas in yellow and pink in the map above. Roman influence seems, logically, to be most keenly felt in major Roman towns and forts. The extent to which their influence spread into the countryside varies by location. The Roman towns and villas are likely where Christianity first touched the Celts of Britain.
  • The less-Romanized Celts – In the west, the kingdoms of Gwynedd, Dyfed, Gwent and Powys  (in modern Wales) were influenced by Rome, but perhaps not as much as in other areas. Laing nad Laing suggest that though they had major forts at Careleon and Caernarvon, the Roman influence was more of “regularizing” the government (110) than superseding it, especially in the western reaches, though they admit the influence Roman life was strong in the post-Roman era. In the south of Britain, the areas of Devon and Cornwall were relatively untouched by Roman influence, despite the town of Exeter being Rome’s westernmost holding.
  • The Lowland Britons – The lands between Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall (what is today southern Scotland) were peopled by four main tribes of Britons: Votadini, Damnonii, Novantae and Selgovae. These “Men of the North,” as they were sometimes called, lived in a military zone in the first two centuries of the Common Era and some of the tribes were frequently attacked by the Roman army. But after that, Rome pretty much left them alone. This area is pinkish-purple in the map above.
  • The Highlanders – Today, we would call them Picts, but the were really a group of many tribes (some were thought to be nomadic). The Caledonii are the most well known, both for their fierceness and ability to live in extremely cold and bleak landscapes, but we would be remiss not to mention the others: Taexali, Vacomagi, Cornovii, Smertae, Caereni, Carnonacae, Creones, Venicones, and Epidi.

Obviously, my books focus on the area that is today the Britain and Scotland. But there were also Celtic people in Brittany (the Bretons) and Amorica/Galaicia (Gaul) at the time. And of course, the Irish were also Celts, perhaps the only ones completely devoid of Roman influence, since the Romans left them alone. I’m saving the Irish stuff until I write about Tristan and Isolde, so we have something to talk about then.

The Britons by Christopher Snyder
Celtic Britain and Ireland
 by Lloyd and Jennifer Laing
The Celts by Jean Markale
The Native Tribes of Britain (BBC)

What questions do you have about the Celtic peoples of Britain?

Dinogad’s Smock, an Ancient Celtic Cradle Song

Thank you all for staying with me through a few weeks of writer-related posts. I promised you something special, so here it is.

When I was researching for my third Guinevere book, I came across an interesting nugget in Tim Clarkson’s book, The Men of the North. He mentions that written in the margin of one copy of the 7th century Welsh heroic poem Y Gododdin were the first four lines to an ancient Celtic nursery song called Pais Dinogad or Dinogad’s Smock. At more than 1,400 years old, it is believed to be one of the oldest extant songs of its kind from a Celtic culture.

There are many translations, but since I don’t read any of the languages, I can’t say which is best. Here’s one sung and one written (which likely vary from one another):

Dinogad’s smock, speckled, speckled,
I made from the skins of martens.
Whistle, whistle, whistly
we sing, the eight slaves sing

When your father used to go to hunt,
with his shaft on his shoulder and his club
 in his hand,
he would call his speedy dogs,
‘Giff, Gaff, catch, catch, fetch, fetch!’,
he would kill a fish in a coracle,
as a lion kills an animal.

When your father used to go to the mountain,
he would bring back a roebuck, a wild pig, a stag,
a speckled grouse from the mountain,
a fish from the waterfall of Derwennyd

Whatever your father would hit with his spit,
whether wild pig or lynx or fox,
nothing that was without wings would escape.

Dinogad’s smock, pied, pied,
It was from marten’s skins that I made it.
‘Wheed, wheed, a whistling!’
I would sing, eight slaves sang.
When thy father went a-hunting,
A spear on his shoulder, a club in his hand,
He would call the nimble hounds,
‘Giff, Gaff; catch, catch, fetch, fetch!’
He would kill a fish in his coracle
As a lion kills its prey.
When thy father went to the mountain
He would bring back a roe-buck, a wild boar, a stag,
A speckled grouse from the mountain,
A fish from Rhaeadr Derwennydd.
Of all those that thy father reached with his lance,
Wild boar and lynx and fox,
None escaped which was not winged.

Esmerelda’s Cumbrian History gives a better account of the history of the song than I ever could, so please visit her site for all the details. I’ll just give a short summary here. As mentioned, it was found recorded in the margins of Y Gododdin, so it was originally thought to be from the of the Gododdin (today’s southern Scotland) culture, but has since been dated to 6th century Cumbria. However, it could have been sung by mothers for centuries before. Another source identifies the original language as Cumbric, the ancient language of the British Celts, and notes that “the wild cat [in the song] is thought to be the lynx, which became extinct in about 500 AD, so the poem is dated to that time.”

What interests me about this is the intimate nature of this song. Most finds from the time period are military in nature. This is very different; it gives us a glimpse into a very personal moment between mother and child. The lyrics tell us what likely was on the minds of the people who created it. This mother was singing to her child about his father’s heroism, both in feats of strength and providing for his family. We also learn about his weapons and the food the family ate.  Her son’s smock was made from the pelt of a weasel-like animal (you’ll die of cuteness if you Google them) and the family owned slaves (which wasn’t unusual for the Celts, and is to me a possible indication of an earlier time period than the dates above suggest). Her words convey obvious pride in her husband. I can picture her including wild gestures and maybe even funny voices to amuse her child, just as we do with bedtime stories today.

I can’t help but notice that, at least in this translation, the father is referred to in past tense. It makes me wonder what happened to him. Is he dead? Did he die in battle? Was he killed during the hunt? Did he abandon is wife and child? Or is he alive and well, still sharing a happy home with his family? Maybe he is just too old for hunting. And what made the woman compose this song? Or had she grown up with it?

How did the person who wrote the first four lines in the book know the song? How widespread was it? (It could have been commonly known like Rockabye Baby is now, as Esmerelda suggests, or it could have been passed down through generations of a family.) Why was it written down in the margins of Y Gododdin? Was this perhaps a tune stuck in someone’s head or (gasp!) could the writer have been a woman who had recently been singing it to her child?

Little nuggets like this are why I love writing historical fiction. Were I (or anyone else) to novelize these musings, it would be one less bit of ancient lore lost to the amnesia of history. I have no plans to tell this particular story, but Dinogad’s Smock does make a brief appearance in book 3 (I’ve taken some liberties as to why Guinevere would have known it). I hope you’ve enjoyed this little surprise from history as much as I did.

Have you ever heard of Dinogad’s Smock before? Do you know of any other ancient (or even near historical) lullabies? Which ones do you recall from your own childhood? Mine were pretty standard, Itsy-Bitsy Spider and the like.

PS – I’ve found that many times when I embed YouTube videos into posts, they are slammed with spam. If at any point you read this and comments are closed, that’s why.