Trinity College Long Room, Old Library. No photography is allowed, so this is a scan of the postcard I bought in the gift shop.
Pardon me while I indulge my dorkdom.
But if I could personally design heaven, it would look exactly like the Trinity College Old Library Long Room. For me, this is heaven on earth and I’m sure my fellow bibliophiles would agree.
Built between 1712 and 1732, it houses over 200,000 rare books. Rotating exhibits line the center isle. The ones while we were there were illuminated manuscripts from various time periods, as well as artifacts from the library’s history, including the oath the library guards have to take. Word to the wise: the guards get tetchy if you lean over the ropes to get a better look at the books, even if your hands are behind your back. Really, all I wanted was to see if I could read the titles on the spines…
The library also houses the Book of Kells, Book of Armagh, the Book of Durrow and the oldest surviving harp in Ireland (you know, the one you see on Irish coins and everywhere else). But for me, the real treasure was the library itself. I actually cried while we were in the Long Room. That’s how happy I was. Somehow seeing all those books confirmed my desire to be a full-time author and also get my doctorate in history. I’m a bookworm to my core.
The spiral staircase that greets you as you walk into the library. Also a scan of a postcard.
I could kiss the person who created this: a 360 degree tour of the Long Room Library. (Put it on full-screen mode to feel like you’re there.) I think it will get me through until I can go back again, which it now appears may be sooner than I anticipated.
In all seriousness, it’s on my Bucket List to get to use one of the books housed here in my research, preferably getting to read it in the second floor reading room. Now I just have to figure out what they have that I would need and how to go about accessing it. I’ve also added visiting all the world’s most beautiful libraries to my list. Anyone want to come with me?
I could sit and look at the stacks of books, breathing in that old book smell forever. Yeah, if I was in the world of Veronica Roth’s Divergent, I’d totally be Erudite. And that’s fine by me.
What do you think of the library? Have you been there? Do places like this interest you? What places in the world take your breath away?
Note from Nicole: Today’s post comes from Arthurian scholar and historical fiction author, Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. You may remember his name from a review of his book, “King Arthur’s Children,” that I did a few months ago. I’m thrilled to have him with us because he can always be counted on for thought-provoking insight into Arthurian legend. I will be in Ireland when this post runs, but Tyler is ready to respond to any comments/questions you may have.
I am honored to be a guest on Nicole Evelina’s blog. When I told her I was going to Turkey and it had Arthurian connections, she was surprised and asked me whether I would blog about my trip and those connections when I got home.
While I did not find any legitimate evidence that King Arthur ever visited Turkey, Turkey has many connections to the Arthurian legend, including being home to King Arthur’s ancestors and to many stories and relics that later figure in the Arthurian legends. In fact, I could fill many blog posts with the connections between Arthur and Turkey, but I will just briefly hit some of the highlights here and include a few photographs from my trip.
King Arthur’s Ancestors in Turkey
The ruins of Troy (Photo by Tyler R. Tichelaar)
Who were King Arthur’s ancestors? According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur was descended from Brutus, for whom Britain was named. Brutus came to Britain from Italy where he was a descendant of Aeneas, founder of Rome. Aeneas was a survivor who escaped from Troy after the city fell. Aeneas’ tale is told in The Aeneid by Virgil, and he is also mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. Aeneas was part of the Trojan royal family. Therefore, we can say that King Arthur was a Trojan. Today, it is difficult to imagine what the city of Troy must have looked like since the ruins of Troy are hardly more than small remnants of walls that remain, but even so, I found it spine-tingling to visit those ruins and imagine what it would have been like to live in Troy. Had there been no Trojan War, perhaps there would have been no King Arthur.
King Arthur’s bloodline is also often linked to the Emperor Constantine, best known for having made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. Some sources claim that Constantine was father to Ambrosius Aurelianus, and some scholars think Ambrosius was the real source for King Arthur, while more typically he is depicted as King Arthur’s uncle, brother to Uther Pendragon. Since the Emperor Constantine died in 337 and Arthur traditionally is believed to have died at the Battle of Camlann circa 539, it seems unlikely that the Emperor Constantine was his grandfather, but other traditions link Arthur to Magnus Maximus who vied for the throne of Rome, and Arthur might have also been related to Constantine when it’s considered that many traditions claim Constantine’s mother, Helen, was a British noblewoman and also that Constantine was himself born in Britain. Notably, Arthur’s successor as King of Britain is also named Constantine.
Chapel built on Virgin Mary’s House near Ephesus (Photo by Tyler R. Tichelaar)
The British chroniclers of the Middle Ages linked Constantine as a descendant from Joseph of Arimathea; Joseph prominently figures in the Grail Legends and reputedly was Jesus’ uncle and may have brought Jesus to Britain where he spent his “missing” years of childhood that are not documented in the Bible.
If King Arthur were related to Constantine, and therefore, also to Joseph of Arimathea, he may have also been related to the Virgin Mary since Joseph of Arimathea is often believed to have been Mary’s uncle (so technically Jesus’ great-uncle). Mary traveled to Turkey with the apostle John some time after the Crucifixion. She made her home near Ephesus, one of the seven churches of Revelation. Today a chapel is built upon the place where once her house is believed to have stood.
The Grail Legend What would the Arthurian legend be without the quest for the Holy Grail? One candidate for the true Holy Grail is a chalice in Spain at the monastery of San Juan de la Peña. According to Wikipedia, archaeologists say the artifact is a 1st century Middle Eastern stone vessel, possibly from Antioch in present day Turkey.
Another holy relic associated with the Grail legends is the Lance of Longinus, which pierced Christ’s side during the Crucifixion. It is often featured with the Holy Grail in the Grail legends and is one of the items carried in a procession that Percival witnesses. This spear was brought from the Holy Land to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey) in the seventh century. It was housed in Hagia Sophia. Later it was moved to the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos. The point of the lance, which was now set in an icon, was acquired by the Latin Emperor, Baldwin II of Constantinople, who later sold it to Louis IX of France.
King Arthur and the Roman Emperor
Hagia Sophia (Photo by Tyler R. Tichelaar)
Several versions of the Arthurian legend cite Arthur’s conflict with the Roman emperor as reason for his journey to the Continent, leaving the kingdom of Britain in Mordred’s hands. Of course, Rome fell in 476 and usually Arthur is seen as living after this date. Therefore, it is more likely that it is the Byzantine Emperor who demands fealty from Arthur. The Byzantine Empire was also in decline in the 5th century but reached its greatest extent during the reign of the Emperor Justinian (527-565), placing him as emperor toward the end of Arthur’s reign, so I suspect Justinian’s increasing power may have been reason for him demanding fealty from a former Roman province such as Britain; therefore, I suspect he is the emperor with whom Arthur has a conflict. The term Byzantine was not applied until recent times by historians, while the medieval chroniclers would have thought of the Byzantine Emperor as the Roman Emperor—especially since there would have been no Holy Roman Emperor until Charlemagne in 800 A.D.
In addition, Parke Godwin in his novel Beloved Exile (1984) about Guinevere’s life after the Battle of Camlann has her end up at the Court of the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople. Constantinople at that time would have been the most resplendent and important city in Christendom.
Anachronistic King Arthur Tales in Turkey Believe it or not, there is a legend that claims that King Arthur piloted an ark (just like Noah did) during the Deluge (see http://stevequayle.com/Giants/articles/giants.of.Earth.html). Noah’s ark reputedly ended up on top of Mt. Ararat in modern day Turkey. There’s no word where Arthur’s ark ended up. Perhaps Arthur was a time traveler, since the Great Flood would have taken place about 6,000 years before Arthur lived.
Another interesting anachronism is the tale of “The Turke and Sir Gawain” which can be read at: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/turkfrm.htm. The Turks were not known to Western Europeans really until five centuries after Arthur’s time when they entered modern day Turkey and defeated the Byzantine Emperor in 1071. They continued as an increasing threat to Christendom and Europe through their conquest of Constantinople in 1453. This poem was composed about 1500 when the Ottoman Empire ruled by the Turks was at its height and a severe threat to Christendom, so the modern day Turkish threat was cast upon the Arthurian legend.
Therefore, a good case can be made for the significant relationship between the land of Turkey and its people and their influence on the Arthurian legend. Finally, if my Turkey-King Arthur connections are not convincing enough, perhaps you would prefer some good cooking. A quick search on the Internet will find plenty of recipes for using King Arthur Flour to make various turkey dishes including turkey and dumplings: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/blog/2008/11/29/a-deft-recipe-for-dumplings-a-quest-fulfilled/
Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a movie all writers should see. No matter what you write, you’ll find something to appreciate in this film. But what surprised me the most when I saw it last weekend was how much it moved me as a historical fiction writer.
I don’t intend this to be a review, so I’ll just touch on the high points of the plot, as they apply to this post. The movie is about Gil (played by Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter turned aspiring novelist who regrets never living and writing literature in Paris. On a trip there with his fiance and her family, he finds that every night at midnight he can travel back in time to the 1920s, a time he yearns for as an ideal age. After various adventures with the literary and artistic elite of the time, including his idols F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, Picasso and many others, Gil realizes that everyone finds the present boring and longs for another time.
I’ll admit, I’m a little jealous of Gil being able to have his work reviewed by one of his historical idols (who wouldn’t be?!) And real-life quotes like Hemingway’s “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure,” and “If you’re a writer, declare yourself the best writer,” make the movie relatable on a personal level.
But what makes it truly great is a strong theme of living in the past. Anyone who writes historical fiction can no doubt relate to this exchange:
One of the two over-the-top antagonists (I wish Allen had been a little more trusting of his audience and more subtle in their characterization) has one of the most poignant lines in the film, “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Is he right? Yes and no. I agree that yearning for the past is a way of dealing with a difficult present (if we didn’t have difficulties, what would we write about?), but I don’t think it’s a flaw. For some of us, it’s just the way our brains work. If wasn’t, there would be no historians and no record (romantic or otherwise) of what came before. I disagree that nostalgia is denial. It’s recognition that something in the past resonates with us more than the present. We can find ways of mining our love of the past to improve our present by incorporating the values or ways of life we feel our society has lost or is losing, or at the very least, capture them in our writing for future generations.
Historical fiction serves a great purpose. It not only entertains and provides a means of escape, it educates about a bygone time in relatable ways history textbooks never can. Until time travel becomes more than fantasy, it’s the closest thing we’ve got. We’re fortunate that history gives us such a rich tableau from which to draw in our writing.
By far my favorite scene is this one (I wish I could find a video clip for you):
Adriana: Let’s never go back to the ’20s!
Gil: What are you talking about?
Adriana: We should stay here. It’s the start of La Belle Époque! It’s the greatest, most beautiful era Paris has ever known.
Gil: Yeah, but about the ’20s, and the Charleston, and the Fitzgeralds, and the Hemingways? I mean, I love those guys.
Adriana: But it’s the present. It’s dull.
Gil: Dull? It’s not my present. I’m from 2010.
Adriana: What do you mean?
Gil: I dropped in on you the same way we’re dropping in on the 1890s.
Adriana: You did?
Gil: I was trying to escape my present the same way you’re trying to escape yours, to a golden age.
Adriana: Surely you don’t think the ’20s are a golden age!
Gil: Well, yeah. To me they are.
Adriana: But I’m from the ’20s, and I’m telling you the golden age is La Belle Époque.
Gil: And look at these guys. I mean, to them, their golden age was the Renaissance. You know, they’d trade Belle Époque to be painting alongside Titian and Michelangelo. And those guys probably imagined life was a lot better when Kublai Khan was around.
Adriana: What are you talking about?
Gil: Adriana, if you stay here, and this becomes your present, then, pretty soon, you’ll start imagining another time was really your, you know, was really the golden time. That’s what the present is. That it’s a little unsatisfying, because life’s a little unsatisfying.
The key point here? No one is ever satisfied with the time in which they live. It’s possible to view the past through rose-colored glasses, but the present is seen with painful clarity. That’s exactly why historical fiction has a market. Everyone has a different point in time that is their escape. Like Gil says about living in the past, if you read (or write) too much of one time period, you get comfortable with it and it gets boring, so you move on to another, seeking to fill a void created by the present. But for historical fiction writers, the past is the present, and that’s what sets us apart from other writers.
So what do you think? Have you seen Midnight in Paris? Did you like it? Can you relate to what I’ve said or do you think I’m totally crazy? Do you think living in the past is pointless or do you see some value in it?
I know, I know. I said I wouldn’t do any more posts before the new year. So consider this one a bonus.
As you all know, I’m still fairly new to this whole blogging thing and even newer to following other people’s blogs. But I wanted to take a minute to share the ones I really like and say thanks to all my fellow bloggers out there for their insight. If you’re not on this list, please don’t be upset. I wanted to limit it to six and purposefully kept it to ones I’m really familiar with. If I’m new to following you, chances are good you’ll be on a future list!
CrazyBeautiful – Dianne Sylvan is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, but I mainly read her blog because she’s funny. Witty and poignant (sometimes in the same breath), she explores life with gusto and says things the rest of us only think (and sometimes, exactly what we need to hear).
The Raccoon Society – Maintained by Kill Hannah lead singer Mat Devine (and named for the band’s fans), this blog is part musings on life, part tour diary, and part Breakfast Club Q&A. I’ve been reading Mat’s blogs (in various incarnations) for many years, and his intelligent writing, poetic sensibility and out and out compassion give me hope that there are more men out there like him. I tend to skip the Q&A because of all the teenage drama (that’s his fan base), but I laud Mat for being a role model and taking the time to give honest advice I wish had been around when I was a teen.
Lee Safar’s blog – In case you haven’t noticed, Miss Lee is a sort of mentor of mine. She’s a musician, dreamer and seeker of happiness who blogs about all three. Some of her blogs are only for members of the Red Feather community (details on her site), but she shares most with everyone. The thing I love most about her writing is the positive energy, genuine warmth and frank advice. Plus, it’s neat to get an inside look into her burgeoning music career.
A Corner of Tenth Century Europe – This blog, written by Oxford Professor Jonathan Jarrett, is one of the best out there for early medieval history. I don’t always understand everything he writes about, but when I do, he’s brilliant.
Senchus – The subtitle says it all: “notes on early medieval Scotland.” If you’re history buff or wannabe historian, you’ll love Dr. Tim Clark’s well researched posts.
Badonicus – I’m still making my way through the incredibly detailed six-part series on King Arthur that’s part of this blog, but I can say this: if you’re an Anglophile who’s at home dancing the line where history and legend meet, this blog is for you.
What are some of your favorite blogs? Or if you have one, don’t be afraid to mention it here (I’m all for shameless self-promotion). I’m always looking for new ones, so please post links in the comments below.
We may not know much about the truth behind Arthurian legend, but one thing is pretty certain: if King Arthur existed, he was a warrior. And probably even Guinevere, too. Women were just as likely to be battle trained as men in Celtic society. As I mentioned in a previous post, in King Arthur’s world, you couldn’t get much higher than being a warrior (except maybe being a Druid) because they were the ruling class. The Celts were fearsome warriors. Over a period of 800 years, they massacred four entire Roman legions and even sacked Rome in 390 BC. One of their most famous revolts was led by Queen Boudicca in Britain in AD 60-61.
Membership in the warrior class was usually hereditary, but status as solider often came as part of a complicated agreement similar to feudalism. Any freeman (anyone who was not an outlaw, exile or slave) could get a loan of grain, tools, livestock, horses or whatever else was needed) from another freeman in exchange for military service at an interest rate around 30%. But if a Celt wanted a lower interest rate (around 8%), he or she also had to give food and free labor to the overlord. Because being under service to someone else did not preclude you from having someone in your service, so the web of loyalties and debts often got very complicated. Out of this web emerged the concept of knighthood (and perhaps Arthur’s venerable Knights of the Round), though chivalry would come much later.
Anyone with at least five free clients (under the lower interest loan) and five base clients (the higher interest loan) was considered some level of noble. So the more people in your service (and hence, the bigger your army) the more powerful you were. But it was your military and political prowess that really determined your rank among the nobility.
So if you met a Celtic warrior in a dark alley (which I wouldn’t advise) what would he or she look like? Both men and women wore trousers, colorful cloaks and tunics, and gold or silver plated belts. Some sources say the Celts stiffened their hair with lime when they went into battle. (But no one seems to explain why, at least that I’ve found.) Many fighters would have been armed with chain mail, which the Celts invented. They fought with a long sword, which hung from their right side by a bronze chain, and carried spears or lances to hurl at oncoming fighters. Some also fought with a weapon called a madaris, which seems to be similar to a javelin. And if they were so minded, they could use a sling and bow for distance weapons, but these were not the most important in their arsenal. Defense came in the form of shields made of wood, leather or bronze, which covered the fighter from knee to shoulder. Warriors could be mounted on horseback (whether or not their saddles had stirrups is a matter of controversy), on foot or if in an earlier time than my books, even in a war chariot.
And battle? One-on-one combat was valued, even as whole armies watched, so the outcome of a battle could be decided without mass casualties, but how often this technique was employed is unclear. What we do know is that unlike their Roman counterparts, the Celts were not good at formal formations (except for simultaneously putting up their shields to form a beetle-like barrier against javelins and other missile weapons) and organized techniques of warfare. In many cases, tribal loyalty counted above all, even the orders of a commander, so the battlefield always had the potential to be chaotic.
All the members of a family went off to war together and often died together. Camp women (pregnant and non-warrior women), artists and children often followed the battles, providing needed services such as cooking, laundry, healing and yes, sex. If the army they were following was defeated and they survived, many fled into the wilderness or to the nearest tribe seeking refuge, but most ended up as slaves to the victorious army.
*In case you’re interested, most of this information came from Who Were the Celts by Kevin Duffy and Women in Celtic Law and Culture by Jack George Thompson, both of which are mentioned on my research page.
The word “outlaw” conjures up images of wild and woolly men, with no allegiance and nothing to lose. In the Celtic world, that’s partly accurate. You couldn’t get much lower than being an outlaw (except maybe being a slave). But outlaws (men and women) had much more in common with the highest Celtic class, the warriors, than you might think.
Simply put, outlaws were exiles from their tribe. You could become an outlaw for many reasons: going against the judgement of Druid (whose word was always final), breaking a tribal law or even not being able to pay a fine. In the later case, you would then plunder a neighboring tribe to raise the funds you needed to be reinstated (logical, right?). Exiled nobles often raised an army and fought their way back into society. But others did not have such options available to them.
Outlaws lived in an area of wilderness between the tribes that was vast and empty of what we would consider organized civilization. But they usually had at least a tacit alliance with a local tribe, for both their protection and that of the tribe. In places where this agreement occurred, the outlaws could be called upon to fight with and defend the tribe, if needed.
But they could also be called upon to do the tribe’s dirty work. Since the land and goods of a monarch were inherited by kin, not necessarily the chosen successor, murder and revenge were common to try to gain power. Nobles often employed bands of outlaws as mercenaries to raid or kill their neighbors. Because they were “outside of the law,” outlaws could not be punished under the law by those they harmed. If the wronged party was to have revenge, they had to track down the mercenaries in the vast, lonely wilderness, a place which the outlaws knew better than their pursuers.
Because they lived in the wilderness, outlaws were also thought to have special powers over Otherworldly nature creatures, including the Sidhe (faeries) and elves. In Irish mythology, there was a special band of outlaws called the Fianna, an elite group of outlaw warriors, who had no clan and no specific allegiance, but who often passed between this world and the Otherworld.
In case you’re interested, most of this information came from Who Were the Celts by Kevin Duffy and Women in Celtic Law and Culture by Jack George Thompson, both of which are mentioned on my research page.
The Celts understood time completely differently than we do. Time was circular, rather than linear. Like the modern Jewish calendar, they reckoned days from sunset to sunset, rather than from dawn to midnight like we do. So in their world, an important feast day would begin at an hour we would today consider the night before. Are you confused yet? This is why I’ve chosen to take artistic licence in my books and count days as we do in the modern world, beginning each day at dawn. Anything else, although technically more accurate, would be too confusing for the reader (and for me!)
Another way the Celts’ sense of time differed from ours was in their calendar. The year was divided into the the dark half of the year (approximately October 31 through April 30) when night was dominant, and the light half of the year (approximately May 1 through October 30) when the sun’s light was at its strongest. They counted 13 lunar months, whereas our Gregorian calendar (adopted in 1582) counts 12 months. Each month began with the full moon and ended right before the next one, whereas if we in the modern world think of the moon at all, the new moon is associated with beginnings, the full moon with the apex of energy and the dark moon with the end of the lunar cycle. In the Celtic calendar, each full moon had its own name/theme based on the agricultural goings on at the time (plow/seed moon, harvest moon, snow moon, etc.) This system worked well until after the feast of Samhain, when there was a period of five days between the festival and the calendrical start of the new year. This was a “time outside of time,” much like our modern leap day, only it held great spiritual significance because it was a time when anything could happen because none of the normal rules applied. Some also say the Celtic zodiac also associated each lunar month with one of 13 sacred trees, but others argue this originated in fiction, but was adopted by modern neopagans as fact.
The seasons were also different for the Celts than we now think of them. Spring began in February, summer in May, autumn in August and winter in October. The Celts, being an agrarian people, divided their year into four great festivals:
1. Samhain (October 31) – The beginning of the year and the festival of death (the Celts believe in reincarnation and were very spiritually connected to their ancestors, so this wasn’t as morbid as it sounds), for both mortals and the God. This day marked the beginning of winter and is where the modern celebration of Halloween and the Catholic holy days of All Saints and All Souls come from.
Imbolc (February 2) – A celebration of the strengthening light of the sun and women’s mysteries, especially childbirth (lambs gave birth around this time of year). This day marked the beginning of spring, plowing and seeding time, and is where the modern Groundhog Day and Catholic feast of Candlemas began.
Beltane (May 1) – This is the festival of life, the exact opposite of Samhain, a sacred fertility festival (for both land and people) dedicated to the sexual union of the Goddess and God. Needless to say, many babies were born nine months later. This day marked the beginning of summer and is where modern May Day festivals and Catholic May crownings evolved from.
Lughnasa (August 1) – The first harvest was treated with great reverence, with the first fruits being dedicated to the Goddess and God. In Ireland, the feast centered on the god Lugh and was celebrated by all manner of sport and feats of strength. This day marked the beginning of autumn and is where the modern Christian feast of Lammas has its origins.
Over the next year, as each of these feasts comes around, I’m going to try to show you how they would have been celebrated by the Celts, but not just by telling you as I do here. I want you to experience each one as though you were there. Be on the lookout for the first of these posts on October 31.
It is debatable as to whether the Celts celebrated the winter and summer solstices and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, but I personally believe they did. Sacred sites such as Stonehenge, Woodhenge, and Newgrange (not to mention other holy hills and some burial chambers) are precisely aligned with these celestial events, so I find it difficult to believe that the Druids, great astronomers that they were, paid them no heed. In their calendar, these festivals marked the middle of the seasons and correspond perfectly with our modern terms of mid-winter and mid-summer.
God’s teeth? No, that oath came about a thousand years later. By the angel!? Nope, wrong book series. (10 points if you comment and can tell me which one it’s from.) Merlin’s beard! Okay, maybe that one.
It’s tough to say by whom Guinevere and Arthur would have sworn or exactly what sort of faith they may have professed, other than it was likely influenced by both Druidism and Christianity. Of course, I make assumptions in my books to suit my fiction, but in their historical time (approximately 475-530 AD), Celtic religion encompassed a variety of influences, especially those from the Roman Empire, and beliefs varied from tribe to tribe. But here are a few generalizations we can make:
They loved nature – Did you know there were no Celtic churches? That’s because the Celts believed in worshiping in nature, rather than in man-made temples. Oak groves, stone circles and sacred springs were about as close as they got to holy structures, and those shrines usually were tended to or presided over by a Druid. (No, Merlin did not build Stonehenge; neither did the Druids. It was actually built several thousand years before the Arthurian period.) Because of their close association with nature, the Druids were believed to be able to control the weather. There was also some belief the Druids could shape shift into animal form, which was probably derived from the shamanistic practice of wearing the animal skin/horns/feathers in ritual to invoke its power, similar to Native American practice. And no, they didn’t sacrifice people on a mass scale. Possibly a few here and there, but why, when and how is up for debate.
They had a god/goddess for everything – The Celtic connection to nature and their agrarian lifestyle also influenced the way they saw their deities. They loved triple symbolism, so often their deities show up in three-fold form. For example, the Goddess is said go through a whole life cycle each year: maiden (spring), mother (summer and fall) and wise woman (winter). Likewise, the God was said to live through three phases each year: young child (late winter/spring), strong man/lover (summer/early fall), and dying old man (late fall/early winter), who would be reborn on the midwinter solstice along with the sun. (More to come on the Celtic calendar and how their holy days fit in a future post.)
The three aspects of the Celtic goddess: maiden, mother and wise woman
So, with all these options, who you gonna call? (No, not Ghostbusters.) The answer depends on what you need. If you were a Celtic blacksmith, a woman in labor or just in need of some poetic inspiration, you’d invoke the goddess Brigid. Going into battle? Mirthas might be your man. (He’s a Roman god adopted by the Celts during the Roman occupation. There’s even some speculation that he was Arthur’s preferred god.) If a goddess is more your style, call on the Morrigan to aid your fight.
Some deities were specific to a location such as a sacred spring or holy grove (the goddess Coventina was worshiped at a spring near Hadrian’s Wall), while others were tribal deities who date back into the murky past of the pre-Roman Celts. And some were more popular and wide-spread than others, such as the goddesses Airanrhod, Branwen, Blodeuwedd, Rhiannon and Cerridwen, especially beloved in what is now Wales, or the gods Cernunnos (the Horned One), Herne (the Hunter) or Lugh (Lord of Light).
They co-existed with Christians – There’s great debate in the historical community about when Christianity came to Britain (probably sometime around 300-400 AD, but it wouldn’t rise to total prominence for a few hundred more years) and even greater debate among Arthurian scholars as to whether or not Arthur was Christian. (Most stories have him being Christian, but they were written well after Christianity became the dominant religion.) In reality, Guinevere and Arthur’s beliefs could have gone either way because that time period was one of transition where the old ways (Druidism) were dying out, but not completely dead, and the new power (Christianity) was rising, but didn’t quite have a hold. I’d love to tell you how that plays out in my books, but you’ll have to wait to read them to find out.
Close your eyes and picture a Druid. What do you see? Chances are a white bearded man in a white robe springs to mind, perhaps with a golden sickle and a bough of mistletoe, someone similar to Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, right? That’s what we’ve been conditioned to think of by both “historical” accounts from Roman and Greek contemporaries and Hollywood.
A Druidess by Alexandre Cabanel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In reality, the Druids were a far more diverse group, young and old, including men (who were called Druids) and women (who were called priestesses). They made up the most powerful class of Celtic society. And unlike in some modern religions, they were free to marry, with Druids often marrying priestesses or either one marrying warrior nobles. There were some who voluntarily chose chastity, such as the virgin priestesses who guarded the sacred fire of the Goddess Brigid in Ireland before the coming of Christianity, but they were an exception, rather than the rule.
There were three groups of Druids:
Priests – Led ritual, taught the young, and persevered the religious tradition of the tribe.
Bards – Composed music and poetry that was believed to have a magical effect. A bard’s song was thought to be able to induce sleep, control mood and cause illness or death. The satire of a bard (also known as the Poet’s Curse) permanently ruined a leader’s reputation and so was often used by warring tribes against one another.
Prophets – Divined the future through the reading of patterns in animal entrails, tracks or flight patterns or by casting of lots of sacred wood (similar to reading runes). Some also received messages from the gods and goddesses.
The head Druid was called the Archdruid and he was elected by his peers.
Power and Function
The Druids held great power. In Ireland, the Druids chose the King through a shamanistic ritual call The Bull Dream. In the Irish court, no one, including the King, could speak before the court Druid had spoken. The word of a Druid was final, even if a more powerful noble disagreed. If you went against a Druid ruling, he or she could strip you of your rights, barring you from religious ceremony and all tribal matters, rendering you an outlaw without tribe or purpose.
Although exempt from taxes and military service, it was not uncommon for a Druid to accompany an army into battle. A Druid could stop a fight with a single word, even if the local noble or warrior leading the fight disagreed. There was also a custom that solider would always yield his or her weapon to a Druid if they asked for it, even in the middle of a battle.
Becoming a Druid
Almost all Druids were recruited from the nobility. It is believed that training took nearly 20 years for a priest or prophet and 7 – 12 years for a bard (and this in an age when the life span was pretty short – probably no longer than 35-40). It is said that at one time there were 13 Druid colleges (yes, that’s what they called them) or centers of learning in Britain alone. All religious learning was done orally and so the Druids became known for their astounding feats of memorization (which are even more amazing viewed through our modern, writing-dependant, ADD mindset). But that also meant much of their tradition was lost over time (I’ll go in-depth on their religious beliefs in a future post). It is known that the Druids had a secret written language known only to them called Ogham. Its letter were named for the sacred Celtic trees, but its purpose remains a mystery (theories name it everything from a method of accounting to a secret code for communicating with non-Latin speakers).
But not all who studied with them stayed for the long haul. Many children of nobility were there only to learn from the gifted mathematicians, astrologers and healers among them. It is also probable that they were great linguists, considering there were dozens of tribes at any given time in Britain alone, each with their own language (or at least dialect) and the Druids were known to communicate internationally with one another in Latin and Greek.
The Druids underwent severe persecution by the Romans in Britain, because the Romans both feared and were jealous of their judicial power, ability to incite rebellion and religious sway. They routinely attacked Druid centers, cutting down their sacred oak groves and slaughtering the Druids. The most famous attack was on the Isle of Anglesey (then called the Isle of Mona) in 6o AD, which was so brutal that the event became known as the Rape of Mona. Still, the religion perservered until the late sixth century, when Christianity finally took over.