The early histories of the ancient celts (part 2)

The Early Histories of the Ancient Celts (Part 2)

The basic sanctuary was the home and the hearth, often only family members could approach the hearth. These were in most cases highly decorated and contained many fire tools; it was their centre, each family performing rites, sacrifices to the ‘House God’, to protect the house and family. The many fire tools were for sacrifice of garlanded rams and horses, ready to feed the Gods and people.

The hearth was used for banquets, with elaborate utensils for eating, as found through archaeology. The best record of the banquet was by Posidonius, quoted by Athenaeus; the Celts sitting on dried grass, with their meals on slightly raised wooden tables. The food consisting of some small bread loaves and a large amount of meat. The meat being bitten off the limbs whilst being held in both hands, sitting in a circle with the leader, or the most influential in the middle, with the next in superiority next to him and so on.

The Celts often fought each other in hand-to-hand mock battles, which could lead to death when they got out of hand, unless separated by the others. In the earliest times, the hind quarters were often fought over to show bravery, often to the death.

It was at the feast or banquet that ‘Gifts’ were made. This was a redistribution of wealth, with an elaborate debt structure binding all the members together. Receivers of ‘Gifts’ repaying the giver in kind, loyalty and service, in the extreme the recipients life could be the repayment. This system of ‘Clientage’ has been documented in myth and the ancient laws of Ireland and Wales.

The Celts feasted with burial items for the ‘Otherworld’. These are known from Irish and Welsh mythology, Manannan’s Feast of Wisdom, the Feast of Bran’s head with companions, Giobniu’s Feast where the participants neither aged or died. Otherworld Feasts usually featured an ever full cauldron, or reincarnating animals to be slain again the following day. Flagons of wine with drinking vessels, animals with hearth implements were left as ‘Grave Foods.’

The Cult

In the very earliest times, the King or Queen held sacred power. As part of their sovereignty, they would have done divination, carried out sacrifices, identified sacred springs, natural features, and religious duties for the Clan, including becoming the ultimate sacrifice in times of trouble, according to mythical sources.

The Continental Celts were beginning to build cities from 200 BC, leading to secular administration by judges. Some cities were built around commercial centres, others around sanctuaries and schools of religion, and some around military strongholds. The archaeologists still have some way to give us civic rituals of this period.

The enclosure with ditch and maybe a wooden fence was the most common form of settlement around 500 BC-250 BC. There would have been interior pits and posts for sacred spaces and sacrifices, interior wooden buildings would have followed. It is document these sites with items made from wood, and many sanctuaries dismantled and hidden by their worshippers upon conquest. The post holes can give a good key to the archaeologists. Further problems were in the fact that the sites were often built upon in the building of Romano Celtic temples, but since the form of the temples was similar, just the materials used in construction different, amalgamation was not difficult.

Most of the Romano-Celtic Temples had a central sanctuary surrounded by a covered walkway within a precinct enclosed by walls and ditches, though some had additional buildings and divided sanctuaries. These buildings were not for congregational worship, with their small shrines for statues of their Gods and sacred symbols. They had openings for the worshippers to view the items in the sanctuary, any large gatherings were held in the courtyard enclosure. The sanctuary enclosures were normally rectangular, with the occasional round one. They were dedicated to a specific God with particular requirements, with posts, lintels, gates and other features of the wood fence were highly decorated, carved, painted and hung with offerings. The entrance was a very important feature. In early ditch enclosures there was a break in the ditch, fences forming gates, with monumental porticos. At Gournay in France, on the footbridge over the ditch the entrance was hung with human skulls, and two large heaps of cow skulls and weapons were stacked on each side of the ditch. These were probably the result of retaining successive decorations.

A post, pit or building would have indicated the centre of the sanctuary. Being closest to the Otherworld and farthest from the outer world, a line of posts with directional and astronomical significance were aligned around the centre. The size of the pit and number of pits were determined by the size of the settlement. One site in Czechoslovakia was 11 x 8 x 2 metres deep. Many pits were 10 pits grouped in threes, with one central pit. Sacrifices occurring in the central pit, with sacrificial animals being placed in the smaller pits to decompose, and then thrown into the perimeter ditch. It was a common belief in the ancient world for these pits to be seen as entrances to the Underworld.

The entrance to a city was an particularly important ritual area. In many British hill forts, ritual pits have been found at the entrance and along the main track way, with horses, humans, and more rarely dogs buried there. It is not clear whether the human burials are sacrificial of deposition.

The writer Strabo, tells us how Celtiberians worshipped an unnamed God at full moon; ‘They perform their devotions in company with all their families in front of the gates of their townships, and hold dances lasting throughout the night.’

Other classical writers mentioned the practice of choosing a figure within the community. They were kept richly for a year, before being ritually killed to cleanse the people from evil spirits. As the original source of this evidence is lost, it is difficult to say where this act took place, but one writer places it at Marseilles, France.

Shrines were built along borders where rituals could take place before going into battle, and for thanks giving after victory. Often sacrifices were promised before the battle and were carried out at these shrines. There are many alters dedicated to various Gods with inscriptions reading how the named person ‘gladly and willingly fulfils his vow’, only rarely however do they specify what the God had done for them.

Before being influenced by the Mediterranean cultures, the Celts did not attribute their Gods to a particular being. There were statues of boars, horses, bulls, bears, birds etc, long before there were any ones featuring humans. We do not know whether the people saw the animals as symbolic of the forces of nature, or whether there were attributes of the animals revered as being associated with the Gods. Some Gods later given human form are inextricably linked to specific animals; Epona with horses, Cernunnos with stags, Artio with bears and Arduinna with boars.

At Gournay-sur-Aronde there is a huge collection of animal bones, the horses and cattle are elderly and show no signs of butchering, whilst the pigs and sheep were young and consumed. Maybe the horses and cattle were revered and brought to the site for ritual burial.

At South Cadbury Camp near Glastonbury (England) there were horse skulls, all carefully buried right side up.

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