Top 10 Fun Facts: the Roman Celts

512px-Roman.Britain.towns.villas

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)

Sources
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?

What Did Camelot Really Look Like?

Think this is what Camelot looked like? Think again.

Think this is what Camelot looked like? Think again.

When I say the word “Camelot” what do you think of?

Probably a grandiose medieval castle made of stone with turrets and spires, something out of a fairy tale. And that is how it has been portrayed in drawings, movies and TV shows.

(Full disclosure, my Camelot does have some of these elements, but I’ve also given you a logical explanation of why it could be possible. In that, I’m invoking the fantasy side of the genre of historical fantasy. But all of the other castles in my books are true to the time period.)

But the reality of Celtic castles, if we assume King Arthur lived somewhere in the late fifth to early sixth century, is very different. In fact, the word “castle” really doesn’t even accurately describe them. They were more like fortifications than homes. For the most part, rulers didn’t have permanent residence there. The castles were protection for the surrounding populous and their livestock in case of attack.

Cadbury Castle in Somerset, which some believe to be the real location of Camelot. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Cadbury Castle in Somerset, which some believe to be the real location of Camelot. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Most Celtic castles were likely hillforts, which kind of resemble what would later become the motte and bailey style of castle. They were based on large earthenwork hills. The castle itself was at the top in the center, surrounded by one or more wooden palisades, and usually at least one earthen wall or ditch. There are many where the hill is terraced and each terrace has wooden walls and earthen ditches or ramparts to make it even more difficult for the enemy to succeed in siege.

The castle itself was likely to be wooden because timber was readily available. The exception is that stone was plentiful in Highland Scotland, and some British rulers, especially on the western coast, were thought to have fortified their wooden castles using stone. But they didn’t build them the way we picture until the 10th century. In fact, castles as we think of them didn’t come into prominence until the reign of Edward I, who is credited with building the great castles of Northern Wales.

These hillforts would have been defended with arrows, swords, axes and spears, along with sling shots. In order to conquer one, the enemy (depending on what technology they had available) may have used ballista bolts in addition to pure manpower.

Examples of hillforts in Arthurian legend include Traprain Law (King Lot’s capital in Lothian), Badon (if one takes Solsbury Hill outside of Bath to be the location of the battle of mount Badon), Maiden Castle (which is linked to several Arthurian stories), and Cadbury (which Geoffrey Ashe and many other scholars believe is the true location of Camelot).

Tintagel, long thought to be Arthur's birthplace. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tintagel, long thought to be Arthur’s birthplace. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But what about Tintagel, you might ask?  It’s the most famous surviving castle linked to Arthurian legend (Arthur’s birthplace) and it’s made of stone. We know the site was occupied during what I’ll call the Arthurian period, but the castle itself dates to the 13th century. I’ll be visiting Tintagel in less than a month, so I can tell you more when I get back.

PS – Scholars can’t agree on if Camelot existed, much less where. Someday I’ll do a post on some of the possible locations. What I’ve described here is typical of the time period, but we may never know for sure what Camelot really looked like.

—–

Sources
British Forts in the Age of Arthur by Angus Konstam
Strongholds of the Picts by Angus Konstam
Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World by Matthew Bennett and Jim Bradbury, et al
There are probably more because I wrote most of this post from memory. Please check my research page for more possible sources.

How do you picture Camelot? What have you seen portrayed in movies, books or TV? Are there any other Arthurian castles you’re curious about?

Poets Most Powerful: Celtic Satirists

Siuil a Run by Vassantha on DeviantArt

Siuil a Run by Vassantha on DeviantArt

In a comment to last week’s post on children in Celtic law, Cassandra Page asked what satirists are. I started to answer her, but then realized it is far too complex a subject for a comment. Hence, today’s blog post.

In the modern world, when we hear the word “satire,” we may think of a kind of humor that makes fun of politics or culture in general, ala Saturday Night Live or The Colbert Report. But in the Celtic word, satire was a much more serious matter.

Poets or bards had two major functions in Celtic society: to praise or blame. If praised, a person would be remembered as a hero or great person down through the centuries. If blamed, they would be infamous forever. It is the satirists who did the blaming. The Celts, particularly the Irish, gave these poets full sacred status. Their words were so powerful they could be considered magic. A person’s reputation could be enhanced through praise, or damaged by satire. Satire was thought to be so powerful, it could kill. Poets were known in myth to “rhyme to death” people and animals (usually rats). There was a poet’s spell called Firt Feled that could cause one’s enemies to die.

Satirists most often criticized nobility for lack of generosity or hospitality, giving bad advice or dishonorable conduct, but they could also pressure them into obeying their own laws. Satirizing someone without legal cause was a serious crime that carried with it heavy penalties, including loss of sick maintenance (a duty of the tribe to all classes of Druids due to their station) or in the case of women, loss of honor price. Women were dealt with more severely under Brehon law than men, and a vast majority of illegal female satirists appear to have used the power of their words to curse. But women were legally able to satirize under many conditions, including when a person to whom she had made a pledge rendered the pledge invalid. This was one way Celtic society made sure people kept their word.

For an example of the power of satirists, read material from the Ulster Cycle where it is clearly shown that kings sometimes acted against their natural inclinations out of fear of satire. Because Celtic kings could not rule if they were maimed or blemished, it said that all a satirist had to do to depose a king was raise a boil on his skin by means of his satirical words. (I imagine this something like giving him hives from anger or anxiety.) Because of the power of their words, originally poets and satirists were treated with much respect and their requests never refused. But toward the end of the Celtic era, they began to abuse their power, and became so hated that the role of satirist was outlawed.

Have you ever heard of satirists before? Have you read about them in legend? What do you think of the belief that people’s words can hold so much power? Do you have any additional questions about Celtic life?

—–

Sources:
Secrets of the Druids by John Matthews
 Magic of the Celtic Otherworld: Irish History, Lore and Rituals by Steve Blamires
Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief by Sharon Paice Macleod
http://loki.stockton.edu/~kinsellt/litresources/celts/review/supernatural.html

The Holy Grail: Part 1 – Celtic Myth

Title: "Parsifal revealing the Holy Grail" by Franz Stassen. WikiParker at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Title: “Parsifal revealing the Holy Grail” by Franz Stassen. WikiParker at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

You could easily dedicate an entire blog to the subject of the Holy Grail (and I’m sure someone has). According to Celtic/Arthurian scholar John Matthews, “there are more than 100 extant texts which deal with the subjects of Arthur and the Grail (7).

But the Grail wasn’t always part of Arthurian legend. We have 12th century French poet Chertien de Troyes to thank for adding the Grail Quest to the legends. I’m not an expert in this area, but I did do some research into the nature of the Grail for book 2, so I thought I’d share an overview of what I learned over the next few weeks.

The Grail has taken on many forms over the years. “Proposals as varied and curious in their origin in the lost continent of Atlantis to their being a memory of the krater or mixing bowl of the gods in Greek myth, have been set forward. Others have declared the Grail to be a bloodline descending from Christ and the Magdalene, the hidden treasure of the Knights Templar and the secret teaching of the Cathars, a heretical Christian sect of the twelfth century” (Matthews 40). But putting those aside, let’s look at the possible Celtic origins of the Grail and how it evolved to the chalice we think of today.

The Grail in Celtic Myth
The earliest stories don’t include the Grail at all. Many times there was a quest, oftentimes for one or more of the 13 treasures of Britain or some strange request of the gods, but those were more like warrior’s tales than the pilgrimage-like quest we think of.

Even though it is inextricably linked with Christ, the Grail may, in fact, have its origins in pre-Christian myths. In these stories, it’s not a cup or chalice, but a cauldron – the main cooking implement of the pre-Roman Celts, and therefore associated with nourishment and life-giving powers. Celtic myth has cauldrons a-plenty, the most famous of which is probably the cauldron of the goddess Ceridwen. To make a long story short, in the “Story of Taliesin,” Ceridwen cooks up a potion to make her ugly son so smart no one would notice his looks. But he never got to drink it. The boy brewing the potion was burned by the liquid and without thinking, licked his sore finger, thus ingesting all the knowledge of the world. He became Taliesin, a bard well-known for his wisdom, and thought by some to be the inspiration for or precursor to Merlin.

Tthe Gundestrup Cauldron, a Celtic style cauldron on display at the National Museum  in Denmark. Photo used with permission from Malene Thyssen, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Malene

The Gundestrup Cauldron, a Celtic style cauldron on display at the National Museum in Denmark. Photo used with permission from Malene Thyssen, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Malene

In the Preiddeu Annwn (Spoils of the In-World), Arthur is first mentioned questing for what could be the earliest direct reference to the Grail, the Cauldron of Annwn (inspiration). It was guarded by nine maidens, possibly priestesses, and it was quite a battle to get to it. Only seven of Arthur’s men returned, and we aren’t told if they ever found the cauldron, or what exactly it was.

Then there is the Cauldron of Rebirth, also commonly associated with the goddess Ceridwen. In the tale of The Mabinogion, there is a story called “The Story of Branwen.” It is here we see the cauldron as giving life back to dead warriors. They return from the Otherworld almost in a zombie-like state, for they are unable to tell anyone of their experience in the Otherworld. In this story, the hero, Bran, leads a group of warriors to find the cauldron, but it is destroyed in a fight. As in the  Preiddeu Annwn, only seven men survive (seven being a highly symbolic number).

Next week, we’ll take a look at the medieval stories of the Grail, and then delve into a truly strange theory involving St. Teresa of Avila.

What do you think of the Grail? Do you think it could date back to pre-Christian Celtic myth or is it purely a Christian relic? What have you read about the Grail, either in fiction or non-fiction?

—–

Sources
King Arthur and the Grail Quest by John Matthews
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Grail

Cooking with the Celts

Celtic iron age roundhouse WyrdLight.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Celtic iron age roundhouse WyrdLight.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ever wondered what it would have been like to eat with a Celt? What do you mean, “no?” Go with me on this anyway.

The answer depends on the location and time period. I’m confining my discussion to Britain because that’s what I know best.

The pre-Roman Celts ate with fingers and dagger off of plates made from wood or bread. Food was either passed around or served at a low table. They sat crossed legged or squatted on floors covered in rushes or animal skins. Food was usually cooked over a central fire in a round house. We know the Celts ate well, with pork or beef being boiled in large cauldrons or roasted on a spit. It was also salted for later use. Fish, bread, honey, butter, cheese, venison, boar and wild fowl were also common. A favorite was salmon with honey. Porridge was a typical breakfast, possibly along with ale or mead and maybe a few bannocks (flat cakes made from barley or oats).

Hospitality was highly valued, so much in fact that strangers were allowed to eat before being asked their name or what they needed. At banquets, the chief or king gave the “hero’s portion,” the choice thigh, to the bravest man in the clan.

Replica of a Roman kitchen by Linda Spashett (Storye book) (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Replica of a Roman kitchen by Linda Spashett (Storye book) (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the Roman invasion, kitchens of Celts who adopted the Roman ways weren’t too different from yours, at least in terms of cooking implements. They didn’t have microwaves, but they did have ovens to bake bread and stoves/hearths on which to boil, fry or stew. They also had sieves and ladles, chopping boards, baking sheets, and pots and pans of iron or bronze. They could even adjust the heat level of their stoves by placing the cooking vessels over metal tripods of varying heights.

The Romans brought with them many new  foods, such as onions, leeks, lettuce, lentils, celery, plums, apples and walnuts. They also brought herbs used in healing and cooking such as dill, garlic, fennel, sage and rosemary. Their love of food was accompanied by a great love for wine, which had been imported by the southern and eastern Celtic tribes before the invasion, but was in high demand after. Oddly enough, the Celts were known for their dislike of olive oil, something highly prized by the Romans.

With these new foods came new table manners. Roman men ate on couches, their left hand supporting them, right hand used in eating. Women sat on basket chairs. They used finger bowls to cleanse the fingertips and napkins to wipe their mouths. Napkins were also used to take home leftovers (ancient doggie bag!) According to Gifford, they ate with knives and spoons of bronze, bone or silver. Other historians claim the spoon wasn’t invented until much later on. Those people say soup was eaten out of a communal bowl that was passed among the dinners. (Eww…Soup is off the menu in my books just because I can’t verify which way is correct for eating it.)

What about you? What have you heard, read or seen in books (fiction or non-fiction) or movies about the eating habits of the Celts?

—–

Sources

Alcock, Joan. Food in Roman Britain.
Alcock, Leslie. Kings, Warriors, Craftsmen, and Priests: Britain AD 550-850
Duffy, Kevin. Who were the Celts?
Gifford, Clive. Food and Cooking in Ancient Rome.

Comments on this post have been closed due to spam.

Solstices and Equinoxes: Celtic Season Midpoints

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Own work) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Own work) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Tomorrow (December 21) is Yule, also known as Midwinter or the Winter Solstice. Have you ever wondered why this day is called Midwinter, yet we refer to it as the first day of winter? That’s because our calendar is messed up. In Celtic times, Midwinter was exactly that, halfway been the start of winter (October 31) and the beginning of spring (February 1).

There’s great debate over whether the Celts actually celebrated the solstices and equinoxes, or whether they only kept the four major holy days of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasa. You’ll find historians on both sides of the argument. Given that the Druids were very attuned to both nature and the movement of the heavenly bodies, I would think they did mark the occasions. After all, even though the Druids had nothing to do with building Stonehenge, Avebury, Newgrange or the other Neolithic stone circles, they no doubt understood they were there to at least mark the passage of time, if not for some greater purpose.

Let’s assume for a moment that the Celts did celebrate the equinoxes and solstices. If so, why? What did they mean? Well, they certainly would have been important to the cycle of the land, if not in the mythology in which the people believed. Here’s a look at each one, and what it may have meant in the lives of Celtic people:

Midwinter Solstice: This is the longest night of the year.  This was a great gathering of the clans, with many symbols of fire and light used to try to encourage the sun to wax stronger once again. Agriculturally, the land lies fallow and covered in snow, waiting for spring. Mythologicaly, it is the rebirth of the god (call him Lugh, Mabon, Mithras, what have you) who died at Samhain. The goddess, by whatever name you call her, pauses from her role as Winter Hag to give birth to her son/Sun, only to return to her dark form thereafter until spring. (Last year I wrote about three possible festivals the Celts may have celebrated on this day.)

Vernal Equinox: Day and night are in equal balance. After this day, the light of day will eclipse the dark of night. The goddess is in her aspect of the maiden, and the god is young, but the two have not yet married and mated (that’s Beltane). She walks across the land, waking it from its winter slumber, leaving flowers where her feet touched. Agriculturally, the ground has thawed and it is time for tilling and planting to begin. Many festivities around this time involve the blessing of tools, seeds and even whole fields to ensure a bountiful harvest – though many of those same things also happened on Imbolc and Beltane.

Midsummer Solstice: The Sun is at the height of its power and so is the god. He is the strong, virile warrior. The goddess is with child, proclaiming her fertility just as the land does. Light and fire are the themes of this festival, including fire wheels being rolled down hills and in to lakes, symbolizing the sun’s strength. This is an auspicious time for gathering herbs, especially magical ones, which the Druids likely would have participated in. Nature spirits were thought to be especially active this night, long before Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Autumnal Equinox: Again, night and day are equal, but this time night will take the upper hand. The god has been wounded at Lughnasa, but will not die until Samhain. His power wanes along with the sun. The goddess, heavy with child, reflects the fruits of the harvest in her swollen belly. All around, the earth is preparing for winter, feeding people and animals alike with bounty to store during the cold, dark nights that lie ahead. Trees blaze a riot of colors while preparing for their winter dormancy. The Celts held especially sacred the cutting of the final sheaf of the harvest (just as they did the first on Lughnasa). This was done by chance, rather than electing a specific person for the honor. The final sheaf would be plaited into a “corn dolly” in the shape of an animal or human, which was kept until the end of the next harvest and burned when a new one was created. The person who cut it was given a special elevated position for the day.

This is only a brief overview of what these feasts might have been. If you want more information, I recommend The Apple Branch by Alexi Kondratiev, from which much of the material for this post was taken.

What do you think? Do you think the Celts celebrated the solstices and equinoxes? Why or why not? Do you think they are important? If you lived during that time, would you have celebrated them? Do you celebrate them now?

Ogham: Secret Celtic Language

The Ogham alphabet. Image by de:Benutzer:Filid (German Wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Ogham alphabet. Image by de: Benutzer: Filid (German Wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chances are you’ve heard that the Celts passed all of their knowledge on orally, which is one of the reasons why we know so little for certain about their beliefs. This is true, but the Celts did have a system of written language, called Ogham.

The earliest inscriptions we have in this language date to somewhere in the 4th century, mostly in Ireland, Wales and Southern Britain. But some historians and archeologists believe it dates back much further than that – even as far back as the Sycthians, who may have been the Gaelic Celts’ ancestors dating to about 1300 BC (Laing 22). Ogham is mentioned often in ancient Irish myth, where it is said to be used for poetry, Druidic spells and even political challenges (Ellis 164-165). There is also evidence that Druidic books existed before Christianity, although we don’t know in what language they were written because they were burned. (Ellis 165).  The 4th century evidence we have mostly takes the form of Celtic tombstones (Laing 167-168), or as Matthews theorizes, tribal boundary markers (196). The main source of written knowledge about Ogham is a 14th century manuscript called The Book of Ballymote, now housed in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy.

Why Ogham?
Ogham was named after the Celtic god Ogma (Irish) or Ogmia (British), the god of literature and eloquence, who supposedly invented the script (Ellis 126). We know with relative certainty that the Druids corresponded with one another in Greek, and due to the extent of the Roman dominance over their lands, they knew Latin as well. But some people theorize that Ogham was developed as a secret language known only to those they trained (Matthews 196). However, some inscriptions have been found in Wales that include both Latin and Ogham (Alcock 241), so perhaps hiding knowledge from the Romans was not the only intent. Other people believe Ogham was developed by early Christian communities in Ireland as a sort of shorthand to aid in transcription of documents.

Written
Ogham can either be written or used as a kind of sign language (you’ll see both in my second book). Written, it appears to the modern eye like a series of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines, the number and shape of which indicate the letters (Matthews 198-199). The alphabet had 20 characters, arranged in series of four. Later, five additional characters were added. Explaining what each letter looked like, was called and may have represented is beyond my expertise, so if you’re interested, check out this article on Wikipedia.

Kilmalkedar Ogham Stone (image is public domain via Wikimedia commons)

Kilmalkedar Ogham Stone (image is public domain via Wikimedia commons)

As Sign Language
The use of Ogham as sign language is very controversial and certainly not accepted by all historians. As hand signals, the fingers of the hand and certain locations on the palm represent letters or phrases. A person signing this way would use the placement of fingers across the shinbone, nose, thigh, foot or on the palm or fingers of the opposite hand to indicate a letter, word or phrase. Matthews even goes so far as to suggest that the sign language may have come first and been written down much later (199-200).

Other Uses
You may hear people refer to Ogham as the “Celtic tree alphabet” and call it a form of divination, but there is no historical evidence to back this up. Some modern groups cite Robert Graves’ book, The White Goddess (p. 165 – 204) as the basis for these “facts.” While his book is a fascinating look at mythology, it’s not known for its reliability. Graves is the one who aligned the letters of Ogham with the “seasonal calendar of tree magic” and also re-ordered the letters. The divination that is associated with this comes from Tochmarc Étaíne, a tale in the Irish Mythological Cycle. In the story, the Druid Dalan takes four wands of yew, and writes Ogham letters upon them. Then he uses them as tools for divination. Based on this story, Graves associated each letter with a tree or other plant, with meanings are derived from their properties. But again, these ideas (which he says are based in on a 17th century book called Ogygia) first appear in his 1948 work, not in ancient sources.

Have you ever heard of Ogham, in fiction, history or maybe movies? It’s even popular on jewelry. What do you think about it?

—–

Sources
Arthur’s Britain by Leslie Alcock
The Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis
The White Goddess by Robert Graves
Celtic Britain and Ireland by Lloyd and Jennifer Laing
Secrets of the Druids by John Matthews

Samhain: The Celtic New Year (Part 2)

Image is public domain via wikimedia commons

Some of you may remember that last year I did a post on the Celtic feast of Samhain that was a sort of experiential fiction. It was a nice experiment, but I’m not sure it conveyed information the way I would have liked, so this year I’m going to talk about the holiday in a more straightforward fashion.

Samhain (October 31 or November 1, depending on your source), was the beginning of the Celtic new year. It was also the Celtic feast of the dead. (You may see similarities between the modern Day of the Dead and even Catholic All Souls and All Saints celebrations.) It was the day when the veil between the worlds was thinnest (Beltane, May 1, is the second) and it was believed we could touch the spirit world and it could touch us. Ancestors were revered and remembered. To this day, people in the Celtic world still follow the same ritual they did 1,000 years ago: doors are left unlocked, meals are prepared for those who have passed and a light is left burning to guide the spirits to a place of warmth and welcome at the hearth fire.

But ancestors were not the only spirits abroad on Samhain. The Sidhe (also called the faerie) rode out from their hill forts, searching for mortals to beguile and lead back to their kingdom. The Pooka (or Puca) roamed the forest. This strange creature could shape-shift, but most often appeared as a black stallion with fiery golden eyes, or a hybrid animal that was part goat, horse and bull. The shake of its mane struck fear into the hearts of the Celts. All fruits or crops still on the vine on Samhain were property of the Pooka, and to disobey this unspoken agreement was to risk a great curse.

Due to the nearness of the spirits, divination was a common practice. There were many types, but apples, apple seeds, and hazelnuts were commonly used on this day, especially when asking about the all-important topics of love and health. Another common practice was for each member of the household to cast a white stone into the hearth fire. If it was moved in the ashes when the family arose the following morning, whoever cast it would not live to see the next Samhain (kind of morbid, no?).

Samhain marked the beginning of the darkest part of the year, the beginning of winter. Just as the earth went dormant, so too, did the tribe, hunkering down in the ice and cold and praying they would survive the lean days to come. Agriculturally, it was the end of the growing season. The full moon nearest to the feast was (and still is) called the “blood moon” because this is the time of year when shepherds/ranchers would slaughter part of the herd to be able to feed the animals through the sparse nights of winter. This was the last time most families would eat well until the summer harvest.

The god Cernunnos as depicted on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Image is public domain via wikimedia commons.

The symbol of Samhain is undoubtedly the bonfire. Not only did it dispel the evil spirits, it united the tribe. In some areas, every single fire in the whole tribe/village was rekindled from the bonfire (although the same has been said about the bonfire at Imbolc as well.) If nothing else, the bonfire served as a rallying point for the party, during which men and women ate seasonal foods and danced to keep the dark spirits at bay. Sacrifices and wishes were often thrown into the fire in the hopes of swaying the gods. Some go so far as to say animals or humans were part of this, but as you can imagine, this a subject of great controversy.

In its religious aspect, Samhain memorialized the death of the God (commonly called Cernunnos or Herne the Hunter). He is often symbolized in the King Stag, the deer whose horns would either fall off with the coming of winter or be wrenched from his head when the young stag takes over (i.e. the old year giving way to the new, just as the generations do). It was also the day of the Crone aspect of the Goddess (commonly called Cerridwen or Hecate). She is the symbol of death, she to whom all return in the end, but she is also the bringer of rebirth through her cauldron of life (do you see where the traditional image of the witch came from?). She is not to be feared, as much as venerated for her wisdom. On this day, all made their peace with the inevitability of meeting her at their death.

Here’s a Samhain meditation I think captures the Celtic nature of the feast quite well, even though it’s geared toward modern neo-pagans: “Harken Now, the Darkness Comes,” by Lark. (I’m waiting to get her permission to post in full. Until then, I’m linking to it.)

Sources:
The Apple Branch by Alexei Kondratiev
The Golden Bough by James Frazer

What about you: have you ever heard of Samhain? Seen it written about in fiction set in Celtic or Arthurian times? Have you ever celebrated it? If so, how?

British Identity After the Withdrawl of Rome

Mosaic of a Roman villa in the Bardo National Museum. Image is public domain. Source: Wikimedia commons.

It’s a crisis of identity every country that has ever been ruled by another faces when gaining it’s independence. Who are we without imperial ties? This was a question no doubt on the minds of the generations of Britons who lived between the withdrawal of Rome around 410 AD and the rise of the Saxons around 600 AD. This is also the time in which I have placed Arthur and Guinevere, so it’s a question I, and my characters, have thought a lot about.

Bearing in mind that we have very few records for this Dark Age/early Middle Ages time period, this is a tough question to answer. Scholars have, until recently, ignored this time period, skipping from Rome to the Saxons, as though the time in between means little. But it meant a lot to the people who lived it. Many historians subscribe to the theory that almost immediately after the withdrawal of Rome, the native Britons returned to their pre-Roman way of life. This is due, in part to the writings of foreign historians like the Greek Zosimus who wrote of a Saxon attack on Britain in 409, “They reduced the inhabitants of Britain and some the Gallic peoples to such straits that they revolted from the Roman empire, no longer submitted to Roman law, and reverted to their native customs” (quoted in Synder, 81).

Recreation of a Celtic roundhouse, National History Museum of Wales, 2007. Image is public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A few days ago I was watching a mini-series on PBS called Michael Wood’s Story of England: Romans to Normans. I don’t know anything about Wood – I’m sure he’s a great historian – but the show made it seem like the Celts went directly from Roman rule back to the round houses and comparatively primitive lifestyle common before Boudicca led her revolt.

I’m not a historian (yet), but I find it difficult to believe that after 400 years of Roman rule, the Celts would abandon Roman influences so quickly. Yes, the money from Rome dried up, as did the imperial protection. I’m sure some, if not most, of the ruling class fled. It’s natural, as Synder states, that the Britons would have “reverted to native laws and local rulers” (82). That’s the system they knew and could live with. It’s also the reason for the myriad of civil wars that preceded the unprecedented moment when someone – possibly Arthur – united the Britons against the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon.

But just because the post-Roman Celts reverted in some ways to their tribal traditions doesn’t mean the population of Britain immediately became uncivilized. Rome brought great feats of architecture, technology and organization to the British tribes. The Britons of the time were used to a certain standard of living and, like any of us, likely would have done what they could to preserve it. I’m sure Roman villas were reused, some technologies were kept (although we know that by the late 5th century the baths at Aque Sullis were already in decline, though the town continued on for some time) and some people clung to the Roman ways. Even as tribal rulers reoccupied the Celtic hillforts, many Roman towns and forts continued to be centers of power.

So in the end, we have no clear answer to how the Celts self-identified after Rome departed. Until archeology gives historians a clearer picture of the time, we will have only speculation. But comparing that time period to other post-imperial cultures, it seems likely that the people were of a mix of mindsets. Some probably clung vehemently to the Roman ways, while others were happy to shake off the yoke of the empire and embrace the tribal identity of their ancestors. While a third group was likely somewhere in between, whether for the sake convenience and maintaining their chosen lifestyle or in an attempt to find peace in the middle ground. And in my books, you’ll find characters on all ranges of the spectrum, trying to survive and thrive in a world their ancestors likely never thought would come to pass.

What about you? What do you think life was like for the people of Britain after the Romans left? What theories have you heard or read? What do you think history tells us?

——

Sources:

The Britons by Christopher A. Snyder
Michael Wood’s Story of England: Romans to Normans