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.
Celtic Warriors by Antoine Glédel (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“It’s good to be the King,” or so says Mel Brooks. But in Celtic society, it was also good to be a Druid, warrior or even highly skilled craftsman. These were the high-ranking classes, the movers and shakers of their tribes and kingdoms. (When I say Celtic, keep in mind there were Celts in continental Europe, too. I’ll try to limit myself to the British Isles and note when I’m referring to a specific people, but a lot of research lumps them all together, so I have to as well.)
In modern America, we’re raised to be individualists, concerned mostly about our own wants, needs and achievements. The Celts were the exact opposite. In their world, loyalty to tribe and clan (and to a lesser degree, kingdom) was everything. While they honored and rewarded individual acts of political and military prowess or extraordinary bravery, in the grand scheme, their family and societal units were the most influential in shaping their mindsets and defining who they were.
There were five major groups in Celtic society. Both men and women could be members of any of these groups.
Boudicea haranguing her troops by Edward Farr (and others) (The national history of England) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
1. Druids – The Druids were the most powerful class in Celtic society. Much more than the ancient equivalent of priests, they also functioned as judges and lawgivers, poets/musicians, healers, teachers and prophets. They had the power to incite rebellion or stop war with a single word. Their word was law, and if you crossed a Druid, you risked being stripped of your societal status and deemed an outlaw (see#5 below). Free from taxes and able to demand certain types of exorbitant payment for their services, some historians speculate they were even wealthier than the warrior class.
2. Warriors– The most powerful warriors often were also the clan chieftains. The Celts were fearsome fighters, but they didn’t fight in organized units like the Roman army. Because tribal loyalty was more important than battle tactics, if a Celtic general chose to break his war band up into units, he’d have to make sure the unit could survive on its own, in case the members decided to ignore his plans and fight individually. The most popular weapon for a warrior was a spear or javelin, but swords were also common. The Celts fought on horseback, as well as on foot. As in every other culture, to the victors go the spoils, so successful warriors were often very rich.
3. Professionals – The professional class included anyone with specialized skill: blacksmiths, metal workers, genealogists, historians, lawyers and physicians are all frequently mentioned in contemporary Roman, Greek and other accounts of Celtic society. Any one of these professions could include the Druids and warriors, too. If a person proved multi-talented, they were given a special elevated status and often accumulated great power and wealth.
4. Slaves – The Celts owned slaves. There I said it. As uncomfortable as it is to modern sensibilities, it’s true. Slaves were often members of conquered tribes or peoples and frequently were used as currency to pay debts or honor agreements. Female slaves actually had a going rate that fluctuated over time and were the most popular, followed by children. Hey, I never said Celtic society was all rainbows and butterflies.
5. Outlaws – Outlaws are exactly what the word sounds like, people who were “outside of the law.” They lived in wilderness areas between tribes and often functioned as a makeshift sort of police force. But before you go thinking all Robin Hood, keep in mind these were people without a tribe or family in a world where those relationships defined you. In a way, Celtic society was similar to the Quakers or Amish. If you were shunned by society, you no longer existed. But unlike those later societies, the Celts had to do more than say they were sorry to get back in. More on that later.
You may notice there is no separate category for nobility. That is strange to those of us used to a more Medieval mindset, but in the Celtic world, both the Druids and the warriors could be nobles depending on their lineage, function and wealth. The Celts had a rule that any member of honorable society (the first three classes) could be stripped of their legal rights if they failed to execute the legal obligations of their station.
There is much more that can be said about the Druids, warriors and outlaws, so I’ll address each in more detail in future blog posts. Warning: I have fascination with the Druids, so you’re going to get to know them pretty darn well.
What’s that you say? Your understanding of Arthurian legend is limited to a popular musical, a bad 80’s cartoon and Monty Python? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Since most people have lives and probably didn’t grow up consuming these stories like ‘tweens on a Twilight bender, here’s what you need to know about the main characters. (Disclaimer: I may or may not follow these storylines in my book, so some parts may be spoilers and others may not appear at all.)
Arthur Pendragon – Son of Lady Iggraine (Grainne/Ygerna) and High King Uther Pendragon. As the story goes, Uther fell in love with Iggraine while she was married to a lord named Goloris. While Goloris was out at a battle, Uther snuck in to see Iggraine (in some cases Merlin cast a spell on him to make him look like Goloris) and bow-chica-wow-wow, Arthur was conceived. When Merlin found out about the child, he arranged from him to be raised by Lord Ector for his own safety, and so Arthur grew up ignorant of his paternity. Depending on who tells the tale, sometimes it is Merlin who tells him, sometimes Uther, other times he finds out through magical means (i.e. sword in the stone). In some versions of the story, Arthur is Morgan’s brother. He is always Mordred’s father. Arthur traditionally is mortally wounded at Mordred’s hand during the battle of Camlann. Some say he died on the battlefield, others in Avalon, while some say he did not die (just like Elvis) but sleeps, waiting for the call to save the world once again.
Guinevere – Daughter of Lord Leodgrance or Leogden. Nothing is ever said about her mother, siblings or early life. She marries Arthur and becomes High Queen. In most traditions she is Christian, but is sometimes associated with the isle of Avalon. Most of the time she’s barren, but a few authors give her a child, usually a son, who dies in childhood. She is often kidnapped, most famously by a rebellious Lord named Malegant or Melwas, and sometimes even by Mordred. She is famous for her affair with Lancelot, which may or may not have been sexual. When Mordred discovers their affair, Guinevere is sentenced to death for treason, but is rescued by Lancelot. She is said to either have died of grief after Arthur’s death or lived out her days in penance in a convent.
It’s interesting to note that in many traditions, there are two Guineveres (the true and the false), who are sometimes twins, sisters, or lady/serving maid. In Welsh tradition, there are three. As fantasy author Mercedes Lackey points out, Guinevere’s life certainly is adventurous enough for several people!
Lancelot (du Lac) – Arguably the most famous Knight of the Round Table. He is usually from Brittany and sometimes the son of their Lady of the Lake (it’s a title, so there can be more than one), but most often he doesn’t know who is parents are. Lancelot is always known for his skill with a sword, and sometimes also with the ladies. Though the popular musical paints him as arrogant, that is not a common trait. He fights for Guinevere out of love that may be chaste or something more, depending on tradition. He is instrumental in the quest for the Holy Grail and is sometimes one of three knights who are allowed to be in its holy presence (the other two are traditionally Galahad and Perceval). Once his affair is discovered, Arthur banishes him to Brittany, but he comes back in time to save Guinevere from death. He traditionally enters a monastery in repentance for his sins and there eventually passes away.
Merlin – Merlin may be a title given to the Archdruid or it may be a name, no one knows for sure. Merlin is usually the son of a nun and a demon (because that makes sense). He always has prophetic powers and is Arthur’s chief advisor. In some traditions, Merlin doesn’t age, so he provides advice to Vortigern (a king several generations prior to Arthur), aids Uther in Arthur’s conception and guides Arthur throughout his reign – all in a single lifetime (see why I favor the title theory?). In a few stories, he even ages backwards. Merlin is said to have foreseen the affair of Guinevere and Lancelot and the resulting fall of Camelot and so was against Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere, as well as his acceptance of Lancelot at court. Merlin’s fate is questionable. Some say he fell in love with Nimue, a witch or priestess who cast a spell on him to steal his power and then entombed him in a glass or air tower or ancient oak. Others say he went mad during a battle (possibly Camlann) and ran raving into the forest, never to be seen again.
Morgan (le fey) – Morgan started out in Arthurian legend as a healer or priestess. She is often cited as one of the nine holy women of Avalon. Somewhere along the way she became Arthur’s sister and all hell broke loose. In some traditions she competes with Arthur for the throne, while in others, she simply wants to kill him. She and Guinevere have a natural dislike of one another and Morgan sometimes tries to kill or sabotage the Queen. No matter her relation to them, Morgan is almost always Mordred’s mother (her sister Morgause/Ana is his mother in early legend) and fights for her son’s claim to the throne. In some versions, she accompanies a mortally wounded Arthur back to Avalon after the battle of Camlann. Beyond that, her final fate is unknown.
Someday I’ll probably do a part two with other famous characters like Elaine, Viviane, Nimue, Tristan, Isolde, Galahad, Mordred, etc. If there is anyone in particular you want to know about, tell me in the comments and I’ll respond. But suffice it to say if I went into all the supporting cast (not to mention the ones I made up), you’d probably nod off. With all the branches of legend, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of Arthurian characters and every version treats them slighly differently. If you want to know more, I recommend The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legend. Or just ask me. 🙂
Okay trivia and history buffs, listen up. Here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about the Celts and probably should before reading my books:
Say it with me: Celtic. It’s pronounced “kell-tic” with a hard “c” like the word “call.” Only the Boston basketball team says it “sell-tic.” You would insult a Celt by saying it wrong. And you don’t want to cross the Celts. They’re a temperamental bunch.
The Celts founded Austria. Although we normally think of the Celts as living in Britain and Ireland, before they were forced west by barbarian tribes, they founded or at least influenced some of the most advanced cultures of central Europe, including Austria and parts of modern-day France, Germany and Spain. (My mom and maternal line are from Vienna, so I’m proud to call myself an ancient Celt.)
Celtic women were very independent. They enjoyed equal (and in some times and places, higher) status to men. They were educated, fought in battle, served as Druid priestesses and even as Queens. Oh, and they wore makeup, just not as much as the Egyptians. More on Celtic women in a future blog post.
Marriage was complicated. There were as many as 10 kinds of legal marriage including polygamy, rape, and marriage by kidnapping. Divorce was not only legal, but common. But there were no illegitimate children or orphans because the tribe cared for all children. More in a future post.
They invented many things. Chain mail armor, horseshoes, organized farming and crop rotation, mechanical harvesters and rotating flour mills (technology that would be lost for hundreds of years after the Anglo-Saxons conquered them), fertilizer (the natural kind), the iron plough share, iron rimmed wheels, and according to the Greeks, soap!
Blonde hair and blue eyes were common. I always thought only Nordic and Germanic people were fair colored, but my research says otherwise. Blonde and red-gold hair were common among the Celts, as were blue eyes and pale, “milk-like” skin. The Celts also were very tall for their time, a fact that many Roman historians remarked upon.
They wore pants. Seriously. We think of tunics and kilts (that was a Pictish thing, not Celtic). Both men and women wore trousers when in battle. Men wore them at other times as well, but every day dress for a woman was usually a bell-shaped tunic secured by a belt. (Sorry guys, bodices didn’t come for another several hundred years.)
Being fat was a punishable crime. The Celts would not like modern America. As a warrior race, they were obsessed with physical prowess. Being fat (sometimes measured by belt size) was a disgrace and could be punished by a heavy fine.
They were an artistic people. The Celts were talented metalworkers. They made intricate jewelry of bronze and gold, wore brightly colored and patterned clothes, embroidered and decorated everything they could, and invented the spiraling, knot-like pattern we associate with them today.
The Celts owned slaves. We tend not to think about that, but slaves were a part of their class system (more in a future blog post), as in many other conquering societies. Slaves were the only class (at least of women) who wore their hair short, as a sign of their bondage.
Not nearly as backwards of a group as you thought, huh? And this is just a taste. More info to come in future posts.
Sources: Who Were the Celts? by Kevin Duffy Daily Life of the Pagan Celts by Joan Alcock
So which fact surprised you the most or was your favorite? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see what else I can tell you about it.
Lindisfarne Castle [CC-BY-2.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Come on, admit it, you got the Golden Girlsreference in the title, didn’t you? If not, read it again and think about Sophia. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
The setting of my books, Britain in the early Dark Ages, is very different from the world we live in. Almost no one could read, technology (such as it was) was limited at best and life was short and often hard. Step into this world with me for a moment:
The prosperous Roman Empire had abandoned Britain 70 years earlier to defend its crumbling heart (Rome) from invading barbarians. Many of its roads, villas and customs remained, but the Britons themselves were returning to pre-empirical tribal conflicts. Petty kings were causing civil war and destroying each other’s kingdoms, while to the north, the Picts of modern-day Scotland vied for land and resources, killing and pillaging almost as bad as the Saxons who occupied what used to be Britain’s eastern coast. To the west, the Irish were in constant battle mode, attacking coastal towns in order to bring valuables and slaves back to their island. On top of that, zealous Christian missionaries were slowly making inroads in converting the pagan natives to Christianity and gaining power and influence as a result.
Historically, we can’t prove that anyone ever tried to unite the Britons except for in the battle of Mount Badon, where the British roundly defeated the Saxons, ushering in an era of relative peace. But 1,500 years of legend tells us otherwise. Someone stopped their pretty squabbling and defended Britain against her enemies. That man was King Arthur and this is the world into which he, and his future wife, Guinevere, were born.
Now, put aside all of your preconceptions based on power, race, resources and size for a second and imagine another scenario with me: The American government has fallen, and with it the majority of our infrastructure and technology. Powerful men from each state vie for dominance without a thought for us, the citizens. The Mexicans have taken over the south and much of the east coast. The Canadians sense our vulnerability invade from the north. To the west, the Japanese conduct constant raids. Those of us who aren’t fighting in the internal or external wars are left to try to eke out a living in an economy that is virtually non-existent. Or if we happen to be rich, we’re spending all of our time trying to keep our wealth from being taken from us. And imagine that some fundamentalist religion was gaining power in the midst of all this chaos, trying desperately to get you to abandon the beliefs you grew up with or freely chose and convert to their way of thinking.
It may sound silly on the surface, but really think about it. That’s our version of the reality Arthur and Guinevere lived in. Would you have the strength to lead us through it? Arthur, or someone he is based on, certainly did.
You’ll never think of the Dark Ages quite the same again, will you?
This this first in a series of posts meant to introduce you to the world of King Arthur, Guinevere and their fellow Celts. Be on the lookout for future installments so you’re all caught up when the first book comes out.