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A huge winter solstice feast might have taken place around Stonehenge some 4,500 years ago.

Abundant cattle and pig bones recently unearthed a few miles from the megalithic site suggest that prehistoric people celebrated the connection between the stone circle and the sky with hundreds of roasts.
Stonehenge

According to initial research led by Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield, U.K., the animals were walked from different places and for hundreds of miles to be slaughtered immediately after arrival at Durrington Walls, a massive circular earthwork, or henge, two miles northeast of Stonehenge. 

Parker Pearson’s research has shown that this site attracted people in droves as far back as Neolithic times.

“The considerable quantities of pig and cattle bones, pottery, flint arrowheads and lithic debris indicate that occupation and consumption were intense,” wrote Parker Pearson, who has was awarded a grant of £750,000 to analyse a range of materials found at the site.

So far, the archaeologist has found no evidence that Durrington was permanently inhabited. He believes that the intense human activity was linked to feasting during the solstices.

“The small quantities of stone tools other than arrowheads, the absence of grinding querns and the lack of carbonised grain indicate that this was a ‘consumer’ site. The midsummer and midwinter solstice alignments of the Durrington and Stonehenge architecture suggest seasonal occupation,” Parker Pearson said.

This year the winter solstice will be celebrated at Stonehenge on the morning of Thursday, December 22nd 2011

Stonehenge will open at 7.45 a.m. for people who brave the cold to watch the sun rise shortly after 8 a.m.

Full Article:  http://news.discovery.com/

 
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The lights are up, Noddy Holder’s voice is ringing in your ears and you’ve already eaten all your advent chocolate in a gluttonous frenzy. Yes it’s Christmas; that time of year reserved for frantic last-minute shopping, burnt turkeys and half-drunk carols in the front room. It’s also the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth, of course: and even that bears more than a passing similarity to the ancient god Mithra.
So where did some of the Christmas traditions we take for granted actually come from? The truth stretches back a lot longer than you might think. Here are ten yuletide customs born in the ancient world.

1. Christmas Trees

Our Christmas Tree We might curse the fact that we’re still picking pine needles out of our toes come spring, but the idea of decorating your house with greenery at winter goes back thousands of years. King Tut may never have seen the multicoloured mess we put up with nowadays, but he would have had date palm leaves scattered around his royal abodes on the winter solstice.Evergreens were celebrated in Egypt as a reminder that, though the winter was harsh and yielded little, spring would come just as inevitably. The palm also spawned a shoot each month, meaning that by December (as it would become known) Egyptians weilded the leaves to show that the year was over. They’d have decorated with entire forests if they ever saw a European winter.

Soon Egypt’s tree-hugging tradition spread north to Italy, during the height of the Roman Empire. Palms were substituted for firs and other native species, on which tapers would be lit and burned in honour of Saturn, god of agriculture and justice, during the notoriously raucous Saturnalia festival. The custom migrated north to Germany and Scandinavia during the Middle Ages, resulting in today’s obsession.

2. Christmas Carols

 

Carol Singing Whether you enjoy strangers caterwauling on your doorstep or not, you can thank ancient pagans and their joyous celebrations of the stars. Song and dance were commonplace at the earliest stone circles of Europe: some think even Stonehenge was built with acoustics in mind.

As with the trees, special songs would be created for the winter solstice. In fact songs would be sung for each of the seasons, but the Christmas tradition stuck with the newly-created Christian faith, eager to commemorate Jesus Christ.

The first ‘proper’ Christmas carol can be dated back to ancient Rome in 129 AD, when a Roman bishop decreed that a song called ‘Angel’s Hymn’ should be sung during the Christmas service at Rome. Fast forward a few hundred years, and a Greek Orthodox Priest named Cosmas of Jerusalem (or Maiuma) wrote another famous hymn. Soon, the whole of Europe was singing at Christmas. Incidentally the tradition of singing to people whether they want to or not was invented some time around the 17th century. If someone had shown Cosmas he might not have bothered.

3. Santa 

 Santa ClausMillions of people still think Santa owes his current scarlet clobber to canny ad men at Coca-Cola. But it’s a belief that should have been consigned to the ‘urban myth’ bin many moons ago. The western world’s enduring image of a red-and-white-robed Santa owes more to his ancient ecclesiastical roots then a syrupy soft drink. Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, an Ancient Greek town of Lycia, modern Turkey, during the 4th century AD. Popular throughout the Christian world, he’s also known as ‘Nicholas the Wonderworker’ thanks to the large number of miracles attributed to him.

Nicholas’ association with the reindeer-propelled giver of gifts we all know today stems from his propensity for leaving coins in the shoes of those who gave to him (see stockings story below). This grew into a European Catholic tradition, whereby the poor would leave their shoes in church overnight. Coins would then be donated by rich patrons in a homage to Saint Nick’s generosity. Present-hungry kids also can thank Nicholas’ status as the patron saint of children when they’re maniacally tearing open a box of badly-rendered plastic rubbish.

 The name ‘Santa Claus’, incidentally, didn’t come until the 19th century, as an evolution of the Dutch colloquialism Sinterklass. His name may have changed, but Santa still kept the ceremonial red robes of his ancient forebear. However many think the clothing may be an amalgam of Saint Nicholas’ and those of the Norman god of misrule, a red-robed character who would go about causing havoc during the winter solstice period. Santa didn’t always use reindeer to power him from house to house, either: many believe they are an evolution of the eight-legged grey horse of the Norse god Odin called Sleipnir, who could leap huge distances. Middle Ages children would leave out food for Sleipnir, a custom which continues to this day.

 4. Yule Log

  Yule LogLike most things associated with Yule, a pagan festival largely attributed to the Germanic peoples of the medieval period, the yule loge can trace its roots back through some of the world’s most successful ancient civilisations. Today the burning of the yule log has become a marginalised affair, and can be carried out pretty much any time leading up to Christmas Day. Yet the log began its life as a yuletide tradition thousands of years back, in the earliest cities of Sumer and Egypt.

Egyptians believed that the winter solstice period marked the death and rebirth of their national god Horus, the god of the sky and the sun. Thus light was shed to celebrate him, and since Egypt was about 5,000 years from electricity a log would be burned for 12 days. This tradition carried into the cities of Sumer and Mesopotamia via the winter festival of Zagmuk, and would later become one of the features of the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, when a yule-style log was burned for ten days to usher in the strength of Mithra.

Saxons and Visigoths would latch onto the log as a symbol of good, or light prevailing over darkness, or evil. Ashes were prized for their supposed magical powers. Christians, most likely taking their lines from the Romans, would later adopt the log as a symbol for the light of Christ bringing the world from darkness.

5. Christmas Cards

 

Christmas cardsChristmas cards may only have come into European vogue during the 15th century (thanks to the Germans, again). But their origins go back thousands of years before, to the greetings given in Ancient Egypt via ornately decorated papyrus. Related or not, the ancient Chinese are thought to be some of the greetings card’s earliest fans, exchanging simple messages to celebrate the New Year.

The invention of printing, and the west’s popularising of card-giving, wouldn’t arrive for another 1,500 years or so. You might expect the Chinese, with their longstanding obsession with fireworks (and blowing things up in general) to have invented the Christmas cracker too. Not so: desperate London sweet-seller Tom Smith invented it as an explosive panacea to his ailing bonbon trade, in 1847.

6. Mistletoe

  When Tara from IT starts waving mistletoe at you from across the office fix023with one suggestive eye on the stationery cupboard, you can thank ancient pagans for the group email the next day. Druids, to be precise: the ancient mystics saw the herb as having magical powers thanks to its evergreenness. Amongst its miraculous characteristics – curing illness, countering poison etc – mistletoe was thought to enhance virility.

Kissing under the mistletoe may date all the way back to the ancient Greeks; no strangers to free lovin’. Traditionally, kissing beneath the magical mistletoe would ensure a couple stayed happy. It was even used as a sort of natural proposal, and hung at marital ceremonies. Saxons then took on the mantle, associating the plant with Freya, goddess of love, beauty and fertility. Men could kiss any woman who found herself beneath a sprig of mistletoe, plucking a berry with each kiss. When the berries had all gone, the kissing was over. One suspects mistletoe was never in short supply at Saxon parties.

7. Presents

  For retailers at least, Christmas is the biggest gift of all: whether we want Oxford Street Xmasto or not (boo to those in the latter category) we’ll all be trapsing the high street in search of something we can pass off as thoughtful, with more than half an eye on our wallets. Yet as much as the world hasn’t always been obsessed with Furbies, novelty ties and shaving kits, we’ve been giving and receiving gifts since the beginnings of society. Archaeologists have found evidence of personal decoration as far back as 70,000 years ago – and French anthropologist Marcel Israel Mauss establishes social bonds which establish respect and interdependence – key to social cohesion.

Fast forward a few thousand years, and gift-giving was a key part of Saturnalia, when masters would ceremoniously be ruled over by their slaves. Gifts were also seen as an important way to keep up good spirits during the long, cold winter. Of course Christians point to the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh given to baby Jesus by the three wise men, though it’s worlds away from the capitalist scrums of today. The idea of presents being stuffed down the chimney pot may also have derived from ancient times. Germanic tribes would throw gifts onto fires as sacrifices for the gods. Thankfully my slippers stayed flame-free last year.

8. Feasting

 It wouldn’t be Christmas without unholy doses of Turkey (or Goose, or Christmas Dinnernuts), bread sauce, potatoes and, of course, the only batch of Brussels sprouts you’ll eat all year. But, like most Christmas customs, feasting to see in the day has its roots in the earliest civilisations on the planet. The Mesopotamian festival of Zagmuk would traditionally involve great feasting, as the height of the winter ended, days became longer and farming could continue once more. Food was one way to usher in the sun, as was the case in Egypt with Horus – and later became part of the Saturnalia festival, a Roman middle-finger to the harsh European winter.

Goose had been used since ancient Egyptian times as the meat of choice for Winter Solsticers, a tradition which continued in Britain until the 16th century. Some credit Henry VIII with having introduced turkeys to our Christmas platters. The Spanish allegedly took on the turkey mantle from their conquered Aztec subjects, who had long domesticated the far juicier bird.

The Romans frequently ate Christmas ham, a custom still followed in many countries today, to celebrate the life of Adonis, god of rebirth and vegetation, who was killed by the tusks of a wild boar sent either by Artemis or Ares. A boar’s head is still roasted ceremonially each year at Oxford University. Though fruits, berries and spices had been used to make cakes in ancient times, the Christmas Pud we all know and love (and hate in equal measure) didn’t enter the annals of history until the 15th century.

9. Stockings

 There are no steadfast stories as to the origin of the Christmas stocking, Stockings for Allbut one apocryphal tale has stood the test of time, true or not. And unsurprisingly it comes courtesy of Saint Nicholas’ legendary generosity. A poor man in Myra lost his wife, and was left to bring up his three young daughters alone. He became poor, and worried that he would not have enough money to pay any of his daughters’ dowries, as was the custom back then.

Enter Saint Nick, who, knowing the father would be too proud to accept money for his daughters, surreptitiously threw coins into his house, beside the hearth over a few nights. The family were drying their clothes by the fire at the time, so each day each daughter would wake up to receive a coin in their shoe or stockings. Some stories even say Nicholas chucked coins down the chimney; another reason why we have Santa throwing presents down the chimney nowadays.

10. The Nativity

 Pushing the boundaries of ‘ancient’ somewhat, you can thank Saint Francis of Assisi for that heart-in-mouth moment you forgot your one and only line, ‘Sorry no room’, in front of over a hundred parents armed with cameras and pitiful expressions (or was that just me?). The famous Catholic deacon set up a living tableau in memory of Christ’s birth, using the accounts in the Gospels of Luke and John, in Greccio, near Rome, in 1223.

The tradition spread fast, leading to the annual humiliation of children that occurs in nearly every school in the western world, if not more. Catholics in Spain and Latin America also celebrate Las Posadas, a ritual re-enactment of the tribulations Mary and Joseph enduring before giving birth to Jesus. This can take place on any day from the 16th to the 24th of December.

Link: http://heritage-key.com

 Happy Christmas everyone………

The Best Tours during the Festive Period
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Scarce images of life, one here, one there,
Lay vast and edgeways; like a dismal cirque
Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor,
When the chill rain begins at shut of eve,
In dull November, and their chancel vault,
The Heaven itself, is blinded throughout night.
Each one kept shroud, nor to his neighbour gave
Or word, or look, or action of despair.

Keats Stonehenge

When we stand amid the columns of broken temples, gaze upon riddling hieroglyphics or trace the spiral patterns on cavern walls, we glimpse the gods of ancient times. Who or what were they? Did they really walk upon the earth? And could their weird and twisted forms possibly return to haunt our imagination?

In this extract from his poem “Hyperion,” Keats describes the Titans, the gods who ruled before the Olympians. Their power is waning. Try as they might, they cannot rouse themselves from lethargy and confusion. Soon, the charismatic Jupiter will wrest the throne from Saturn, the King of the Titans, and the names of Coeus, Gyges, Dolor, and Porphyrion will be banished forever—except perhaps to live on in poetry.

Every epoch must end, every vision of perfection replaced by another. (The Olympians will, of course, be themselves deposed by the God of the Christian era.) Take the idea of the zeitgeist. Changes in culture dictate what people believe and what they don’t believe, but where such changes spring from is remarkably tricky to pin down. They just happen to be blowing in the wind.

In a brilliant phrase, Keats compares the old gods to a “dismal cirque/ Of Druid stones,” linking the image of a stone circle with a dreary circus out of a nightmare, maybe because it goes nowhere, endlessly.

He evokes Stonehenge, whose massive blocks of granite have stood on Salisbury plain for more than 3,500 years. Was it a temple? An astronomical clock? A place for storing grain? Despite all the theories, no one has ever worked out its purpose. Even the Druids are a mystery, their way of life obliterated by the invading Romans.

Stonehenge is only one of hundreds of stone circles that dot the British countryside. West Cornwall, in particular, is full of sites such as the Merry Maidens, the Nine Maidens, the Hurlers and the Pipers. As the names suggest, there is a persistent myth that these stones were once human, whether women punished for dancing on a Sunday, or men for playing games—and it’s easy to imagine that it’s true, seeing their silent forms at dawn or dusk, on the borderline of reason and wonder.

Keats shows us the stones with the “chill rain” pattering down “at shut of eve,” as night takes hold and the light is extinguished. This is our world too, as we read the poem at the end of “dull November” and we prepare for the rigors of winter. The heavenly blue sky has turned into a “chancel vault,” enclosing the gods—and us—in a slate gray tomb. We all await our rebirth in the spring.

Beyond joy and despair, and through every season, the stones remain as an essential part of the landscape. Here are the thoughts of the artist JT Blight writing in The Gentleman’s Magazine back in 1868: “Nor is there any more impressive evidence of the mutability of human affairs than these rude, lichen-stained stones. They, themselves but the relics of once perfect structures, have yet, even in their ruined condition, outstood the downfall of cities, and have yet remained whilst palaces and the finest works of art have become mere refuse heaps, or have crumbled to dust.”

A Reading from ‘Lamia’ by John Keats

So what happens to the Titans in the poem? Do they die or do they return? It seems oddly fitting that we never discover. Keats abandoned his work halfway through, frustrated he couldn’t find a voice that was independent of Milton, author of the epic “Paradise Lost.” Keats’ decision was an act of rebellion, mirroring Jupiter’s insurrection against Saturn. Today, “Hyperion” resembles the Druid circle it describes: a magnificent, melancholy ruin, full of secrets for every reader who wanders in.

http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/arts-entertainment/the-antidote-classic-poetry-for-modern-life-2-150671.html

 John Keats (1795–1821) was an English Romantic poet. His most famous works include “Ode to a Nightingale,” “The Eve of St. Agnes” and “Lamia.”

Christopher Nield is a poet living in London. 

Join us on ‘Stonehenge Special Access Tour’ and one of our experienced guided nwill show you where Keats carved his name onto one of the upright megaliths (1814) 

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THE rain failed to dampen spirits as thousands of Druids, Pagans and tourists gathered at Stonehenge to celebrate the Summer Solstice on Tuesday morning.

About 18,000 revellers from across the country and abroad braved the weather to welcome the longest day at the ancient stone circle.

Although the sun did not make an appearance as dawn broke in an overcast sky, people enjoyed the festival atmosphere with Morris dancers, musicians and people in traditional robes.

The rain stopped before the sun rose at about 4.51am and crowds cheered as the sky started to brighten.

Denny Bartley, who travels from Essex with friends every year for the Solstice, said: “It’s been good – the Solstice is a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and I enjoy being with the other druids.”

Pagan rituals were led by senior druid King Arthur Pendragon at the Heel Stone, which included two pagan marriage ceremonies.

Mr Pendragon said: “It has been a good night. There are a lot of youngsters and a lot of people here asking all the right questions – they’re here for the right reasons.

“A lot of people came here to celebrate the birth of the sun for the longest day.”

Fewer people attended than last year, something which head of Stonehenge Peter Carson put down to the weather and the fact that the Solstice fell mid-week.

“It’s gone extremely well considering how poor the weather was. Everyone has come along and had a fantastic time yet again and they are leaving with big smiles on their faces,” said Mr Carson.

By Hannah White http://www.salisburyjournal.co.uk/

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Bath | Stonehenge | Paganism | Ley Lines| Druids | Masonic Lodge

It is said that the Circus is joined to the Royal Crescent by a ley-line, that they

The Royal Circus is the same circumference as Stonehenge

represent the sun and the moon, and that Brock St which links them is the most paranormally active street in Bath!  The circumference of the Circus also matches – almost exactly – that of the inner circle of rocks at Stonehenge, the most famous druid monument of them all.

The Circus really does epitomise the elegance of Georgian Bath. Beautiful curved terraces of Bath limestone sweep round in a circle, and it doesn’t take much to imagine the ladies and gentlemen of society on this street. So charming and respectable – but look closer….

The Circus was designed by the architect John Wood, who had a fascination with Paganism. He incorporated his interest into the buildings around the crescent, all of which are adorned with Pagan and naturalistic carvings such as pan pipes and mystical figures, each one quite individual. At the top of each house is an acorn. The circular crescent represents the sun, and the Royal Crescent, which he also designed, represents the moon. It is said that the road that connects the two is an ancient ley line.

John Wood the Elder – Stanton Drew Circle and Stonehenge.

Bath is famed for its neo-classical architecture but what underpins the thinking of the 18th century architect John Wood when he drew the designs for The Circus is a strange mish-mash of legend and myth, this of course is the age of the new ‘druidism’ that took hold when such figures as William Stukeley called such places as Stonehenge the Druidical Temple.

Fertile imaginations played with the ideas of sacrificial wicker constructions filled with victims, and Wood took it much further and in his book – A Description of Bath, he writes a history for Bath that is at once absurd yet full of that energetic imaginings that are still to be found in today’s new age books.

To understand why Wood designed The Circus as he did one must go back to the myths that formed the literature of the 18th century. Wood, though including neo-classical forms in the building, was not returning to a Roman past but a pre-Roman past steeped in the myths of a Britannic origin. The myth can be found in the 12th century writings of Geoffrey of Monmouthshire, and according to (R. S. Neal – Bath, A Social History) a 16th century edition of Monmouth’s book written in Paris was very much alive in the oral tradition of Bath. Putting stone circles and Druids together seems rather strange, but Wood thought that the chief ensign of the Druids was a ring.

So as he began to plan his city on paper, he incorporated the pagan elements, but also he was relating the pagan symbol of the circle back to Jewish symbolism, therefore Christian, and then British and Greek, which led quite nicely to the “Divine Architect” who was of course God. This is all creative flummery, a mixing of ideas, so when we look at The Circus we see classical lines, but with little touches of druidism – in the acorns that sit atop the surrounds of the roofs – and the frieze which incorporates specific symbols of Masonic details.

First  though must come the story of Bladud, the founding father of Bath, an exiled prince because of his leprosy, whilst out herding pigs one day happened to notice that the pigs loved to roll in the hot muds of the spring. Bladud also tried this and was cured, and then went on to found the city of Bath on the spot. Our mythical King Bladud is given a date of 480 BC, and as Wood saw it Bladud created the city about the size of Babylon. Bladud was a descendant of a Trojan prince, a high priest of Apollo and a ‘Master of Pythagoras’. Therefore this high priest was a devotee of the heliocentric systems of the planets from which the Pythagorean system was derived. That the Works of Stantondriu (Stanton Drew) form a perfect model of the Pythagorean system of the planetary world

Do the 108 acorns on the parapets refer to the story of ‘Prince Bladud’ (the founder of Bath) or a reference to the Druids and oak trees ?

At Stanton Drew it must have taken him many hours, with his assistant wandering round taking measurements of the circles, which were probably at this time partly covered in orchards. There was a precedence for this fascination with megalithic stones, Stukeley and Inigo Jones were all entranced by these heathen stones of an earlier age, and the development of myths round druidic religions were already forming and capturing imaginative minds – a bit like today.

Now Stanton Drew was, according to Wood, the university for British Druids, which thereby made Bath the metropolitan city seat of the British Druids. ‘And since there is an apparent connection between the ancient works of Akmanchester (Bath) and those of Stantondriu, it seems manifest that the latter constituted the University of the British Druids; that this was the university which King Bladud, according to Merlyn of Caledon planted; that it was at Stantondrui the king feated his four Athenian colleagues and that they were not only the heads of the British Druids in those early ages, but, under Bladud, the very founder of them‘ 

The Circus is based on a diameter of 318 feet, Wood’s rough measurements of the circumference of the stone circle at Stonehenge, the terraced houses form a perfect circle around a ‘timber’ circle of planted trees in the centre. There is an early drawing by J.R.Cozens which shows hitching stone post for the horses arranged symmetrically round the The Circus which would give the allusion of stones.

Wood also incorporated into his thinking the hills around Bath, giving them various titles such as Sun and Moon Hill, and The Parade is also aligned on Solsbury Hill which had an Iron Age settlement on top. The Royal Crescent built by his son John Wood the Younger, was crescent shaped representing the moon.

Where you might ask is the masonic symbolism, well it is only seen from the air, taking The Circus as the round part of the key walk down Gay Street to Queens Square which is square, and you will see the ‘key’ of Bath.

What is a Ley Line?
Ley lines are alleged alignments of a number of places of geographical interest, such as ancient monuments and megaliths, natural ridge-tops and water-fords. Their existence was suggested in 1921 by the amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins, in his books Early British Trackways and The Old Straight Track. Watkins theorized that these alignments were created for ease of overland trekking by line of sight navigation during neolithic times and had persisted in the landscape over millennia.  In more recent times, the term ley lines has come to be associated with spiritual and mystical theories about land forms, including Chinese feng shui.

 I wonder if the fashionable Georgians who lived in these houses knew of the symbolism?
Links:
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Celtic Britain
(The Iron Age) c. 600 BC – 50 AD

Who were they? The Iron Age is the age of the “Celt” in Britain. Over the 500 or so years leading up to the first Roman invasion a Celtic culture established itself throughout the British Isles. Who were these Celts?

For a start, the concept of a “Celtic” people is a modern and somewhat

Celtic Britain was dominated by a number of tribes, each with their own well-defined territory. It is thanks to Roman chroniclers, such as Strabo, Julius Caesar, and Diodorus, that the names of individual tribes are known to us today, albeit in Romanized form.

Celtic Britain was dominated by a number of tribes, each with their own well-defined territory. It is thanks to Roman chroniclers, such as Strabo, Julius Caesar, and Diodorus, that the names of individual tribes are known to us today, albeit in Romanized form.

romantic reinterpretation of history. The “Celts” were warring tribes who certainly wouldn’t have seen themselves as one people at the time.

The “Celts” as we traditionaly regard them exist largely in the magnificence of their art and the words of the Romans who fought them. The trouble with the reports of the Romans is that they were a mix of reportage and political propaganda. It was politically expedient for the Celtic peoples to be coloured as barbarians and the Romans as a great civilizing force. And history written by the winners is always suspect.

Where did they come from? What we do know is that the people we call Celts gradually infiltrated Britain over the course of the centuries between about 500 and 100 B.C. There was probably never an organized Celtic invasion; for one thing the Celts were so fragmented and given to fighting among themselves that the idea of a concerted invasion would have been ludicrous.

The Celts were a group of peoples loosely tied by similar language, religion, and cultural expression. They were not centrally governed, and quite as happy to fight each other as any non-Celt. They were warriors, living for the glories of battle and plunder. They were also the people who brought iron working to the British Isles.

The advent of iron. The use of iron had amazing repercussions. First, it changed trade and fostered local independence. Trade was essential during the Bronze Age, for not every area was naturally endowed with the necessary ores to make bronze. Iron, on the other hand, was relatively cheap and available almost everywhere.

Hill forts. The time of the “Celtic conversion” of Britain saw a huge growth in the number of hill forts throughout the region. These were often small ditch and bank combinations encircling defensible hilltops. Some are small enough that they were of no practical use for more than an individual family, though over time many larger forts were built. The curious thing is that we don’t know if the hill forts were built by the native Britons to defend themselves from the encroaching Celts, or by the Celts as they moved their way into hostile territory.

Usually these forts contained no source of water, so their use as long term settlements is doubtful, though they may have been useful indeed for withstanding a short term siege. Many of the hill forts were built on top of earlier causewayed camps.

Celtic family life.
The basic unit of Celtic life was the clan, a sort of extended family. The term “family” is a bit misleading, for by all accounts the Celts practiced a peculiar form of child rearing; they didn’t rear them, they farmed them out. Children were actually raised by foster parents. The foster father was often the brother of the birth-mother. Got it?

Clans were bound together very loosely with other clans into tribes, each of which had its own social structure and customs, and possibly its own local gods.

Housing. The Celts lived in huts of arched timber with walls of wicker and roofs of thatch. The huts were generally gathered in loose hamlets. In several places each tribe had its own coinage system.

Farming. The Celts were farmers when they weren’t fighting. One of the interesting innovations that they brought to Britain was the iron plough. Earlier ploughs had been awkward affairs, basically a stick with a pointed end harnessed behind two oxen. They were suitable only for ploughing the light upland soils. The heavier iron ploughs constituted an agricultural revolution all by themselves, for they made it possible for the first time to cultivate the rich valley and lowland soils. They came with a price, though. It generally required a team of eight oxen to pull the plough, so to avoid the difficulty of turning that large a team, Celtic fields tended to be long and narrow, a pattern that can still be seen in some parts of the country today.

The lot of women. Celtic lands were owned communally, and wealth seems to have been based largely on the size of cattle herd owned. The lot of women was a good deal better than in most societies of that time. They were technically equal to men, owned property, and could choose their own husbands. They could also be war leaders, as Boudicca (Boadicea) later proved.

Language. There was a written Celtic language, but it developed well into Christian times, so for much of Celtic history they relied on oral transmission of culture, primarily through the efforts of bards and poets. These arts were tremendously important to the Celts, and much of what we know of their traditions comes to us today through the old tales and poems that were handed down for generations before eventually being written down.

Druids. Another area where oral traditions were important was in the training of Druids. There has been a lot of nonsense written about Druids, but they were a curious lot; a sort of super-class of priests, political advisors, teachers, healers, and arbitrators. They had their own universities, where traditional knowledge was passed on by rote. They had the right to speak ahead of the king in council, and may have held more authority than the king. They acted as ambassadors in time of war, they composed verse and upheld the law. They were a sort of glue holding together Celtic culture.

Religion. From what we know of the Celts from Roman commentators, who are, remember, witnesses with an axe to grind, they held many of their religious ceremonies in woodland groves and near sacred water, such as wells and springs. The Romans speak of human sacrifice as being a part of Celtic religion. One thing we do know, the Celts revered human heads.

Celtic warriors would cut off the heads of their enemies in battle and display them as trophies. They mounted heads in doorposts and hung them from their belts. This might seem barbaric to us, but to the Celt the seat of spiritual power was the head, so by taking the head of a vanquished foe they were appropriating that power for themselves. It was a kind of bloody religious observance.

The Iron Age is when we first find cemeteries of ordinary people’s burials (in hole-in-the-ground graves) as opposed to the elaborate barrows of the elite few that provide our main records of burials in earlier periods.

The Celts at War. The Celts loved war. If one wasn’t happening they’d be sure to start one. They were scrappers from the word go. They arrayed themselves as fiercely as possible, sometimes charging into battle fully naked, dyed blue from head to toe, and screaming like banshees to terrify their enemies.

They took tremendous pride in their appearance in battle, if we can judge by the elaborately embellished weapons and paraphernalia they used. Golden shields and breastplates shared pride of place with ornamented helmets and trumpets.

The Celts were great users of light chariots in warfare. From this chariot, drawn by two horses, they would throw spears at an enemy before dismounting to have a go with heavy slashing swords. They also had a habit of dragging families and baggage along to their battles, forming a great milling mass of encumbrances, which sometimes cost them a victory, as Queen Boudicca would later discover to her dismay.

As mentioned, they beheaded their opponents in battle and it was considered a sign of prowess and social standing to have a goodly number of heads to display.

The main problem with the Celts was that they couldn’t stop fighting among themselves long enough to put up a unified front. Each tribe was out for itself, and in the long run this cost them control of Britain.

(Note: The terms “England”, “Scotland”, and “Wales” are used purely to indicate geographic location relative to modern boundaries – at this time period, these individual countries did not exist).

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More than 2,000 people gathered in the snow of Stonehenge to celebrate the winter solstice.

Druids, lead by Arthur Pendragon (centre), take part in the winter solstice at Stonehenge in Wiltshire

Druids, lead by Arthur Pendragon (centre), take part in the winter solstice at Stonehenge in Wiltshire

Despite the actual sunrise, – which took place at 08.09am – being obscured by mist, Peter Carson of English Heritage said: “Stonehenge looked spectacular in the snow and it was a great way for people to start their festive season.”

The Pagan community came out in force to celebrate the annual festival, along with many whom were merely curious to experience the event.

As well as the traditional Druid and Pagan ceremonies, a snowball fight erupted as people enjoyed the cold weather.

“The popularity of the winter solstice has grown over the years as more is known about Stonehenge and the winter solstice and the whole celebration has grown in popularity, ” Mr Carson said.

Lance Corporal Paul Thomas, a serving soldier of 15 years who fought in Iraq, was “knighted” with a sword by a Druid calling himself King Arthur Pendragon.
The word solstice comes from the Latin phrase for “sun stands still”. During the winter solstice the sun is closer to the horizon than at any other time in the year, meaning shorter days and longer nights. The day after the winter solstice marks the beginning of lengthening days, leading up to the summer solstice in June.

The Sun’s passage through the sky appears to stop, with it seeming to rise and set in the same two places for several days. Then the arc begins growing longer and higher in the sky, reaching its peak at the summer solstice.

The solstices happen twice a year because the Earth is tilted by 23.5 degrees as it orbits the sun. Since ancient times people have marked the winter and summer solstices.

The stones at Stonehenge are aligned with the sunlight on both the summer and winter solstices. These times told prehistoric farmers that harvest was coming or that the shortest day of winter had passed.

Recent excavations of animal bones at the site suggest that huge midwinter feasts were held at Stonehenge, with cattle moved there to be slaughtered for the solstice celebrations.
External links:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/uknews/8219063/Druids-gather-in-the-snow-and-ice-at-Stonehenge-for-the-winter-solstice-sunrise.html
http://visit-stonehenge.blogspot.com/2010/12/stonehenge-summer-solstice-tour-2011.html
http://blog.stonehenge-stone-circle.co.uk/2010/12/21/stonehenge-winter-solstice-21stdecember-2010/
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8219230/Druids-and-Pagans-celebrate-winter-solstice-at-Stonehenge.html

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