LIFE ON THE FRINGE - 3: Celts Around Central and Western Europe

Heroes - the warrior code

Gaulish warrior statue showing apparel and cloak associated with the warrior class - note the long narrow-bladed sword, counter-weighted with a large pommel
Gaulish warrior statue showing apparel and cloak associated with the warrior class - note the long narrow-bladed sword, counter-weighted with a large pommel | Source

A link between Habren and Britain's longest river

The River Severn downriver forms the boundary between England and Wales, named 'Sabrina' in Roman times. To the Mercian Angles in the Midlands and the Wessex Saxons to the south the river was known as the Seoferna
The River Severn downriver forms the boundary between England and Wales, named 'Sabrina' in Roman times. To the Mercian Angles in the Midlands and the Wessex Saxons to the south the river was known as the Seoferna | Source
Habren, or Hafren - drowned along with her mother after her father's defeat at the hands of his wife. The River Severn in Welsh is the Afon Hafren (Afon pron. 'Avon', as the river that flows into the Severn at Avonmouth near Bristol).
Habren, or Hafren - drowned along with her mother after her father's defeat at the hands of his wife. The River Severn in Welsh is the Afon Hafren (Afon pron. 'Avon', as the river that flows into the Severn at Avonmouth near Bristol). | Source

Follow the Celts through their arts and migrations before Rome took hold of Western Europe.. Their range took in most of the continent as far north as mainland Britain, as far west as Ireland and as far south as the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal).

Quick, shut the window - oh, no, they're coming in under the door!

Sorry, it's just my imagination running away with me! I've been on edge since I saw that druid give me the evil eye at Stonehenge! I'll swear he's got me listed for treatment! Let's get on with this, then. I might feel better after a while.

Where was I? Oh, right. I'm sure I felt somebody tap my right shoulder with something heavy...

HABREN or Hafren, was the daughter of Locrinus and his mistress Estrildis in British Celtic mythology. Habren and her mother were drowned in revenge by Gwendolen, Locrinus' estranged wife after his defeat and death in battle against Gwendolen. Having brought about his fate, she felt Habren should not be overlooked as Locrinus' only heir and in a fit of remorse named the river her victims had been drowned in after Habren.

The river was known in Roman times as 'Sabrina', and is now known as the Severn - the lower reaches of which form the boundary between England and Wales;

The HAG OF HELL, was a woman of great powers, who arose in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen. To win Olwen's hand in wedlock Culhwch was given a series of hard tasks set by Olwen's father Yspaddaden, One such task was to get blood from the Hag of Hell (see the entry on Culhwch in part 4);

HALLOW E'EN, known by the Church as All Hallow's Eve, this feature in our calendars is still held on the last night of October - mainly by children - and traditionally linked with hwicca - from where we get Wicker (as in Wicker Man), Wicca and witches/witchcraft and warlocks. Evil spirits are said to wander freely on that one night in the year. All Hallow's E'en (or Evening) is the Christian version of Samhain, an old Celtic festival also held at the same time of the year, and marked the end of the year in their calendars;

HALLSTATT is a lakeside settlement in the Salzkammergut, centred on Salzburg, Austria - the name meaning 'Salt Borough', as with Salisbury in Wiltshire, England - and points o the importance of salt as a commodity. 'Gut' in the name 'Salzkammergut' means goods or stock, mined in the region from two and a half millennia ago. The earliest miners, the Celts in this region of the eastern Alps, had made this one of their main settlements. Important archaeological excavations were begun here halfway into the 19th Century and the settlement became synonymous with the development of Celtic culture;

*The bronze wagon found in the town bore the effigy of a female deity/deities. Another similar wagon of the same age from southern Denmark has an interesting story attached to it. The goddess carried in it was enclosed behind curtaining and was periodically - annually perhaps - taken out for cleaning at a remote place by its attendant slaves. When it had been washed and put back in position, the curtains drawn and the wagon ready to move on the slaves were executed so that no living person could say they had seen it. Only the priests set eyes on the actual goddess statue and lived. So it went around the area, year after year, slaves killed and new ones 'recruited'. Perhaps something similar happened around this wagon (see below)

This could be the Hag of Hell - all early cultures had one form of monster or another that guarded or dominated a Netherworld
This could be the Hag of Hell - all early cultures had one form of monster or another that guarded or dominated a Netherworld | Source
 Halstatt wagon - a votive offering to the gods perhaps.
Halstatt wagon - a votive offering to the gods perhaps. | Source

Hammer god

One of the important Gaulish Celtic gods, representations of whom have been found in stone and bronze. He is usually shown with a long shafted hammer that has a mallet head and a small vessel - a pot or goblet. Often he is shown as bearded, wearing a short, belted tunic and heavy cloak. He is sometimes shown alone, also as one of a couple with one or other of the goddesses. He seems to have had several other 'bows to his fiddle', being linked to healing (statues are often sited by healing springs).

In Gaul he was also linked to wine and grapes, as in Burgundy. There is another association with the sun and worldly wealth

The Gaulish hammer god Sucellus
The Gaulish hammer god Sucellus | Source

Heads

were seen as objects of worship by early Celtic tribes. To them the head was superior to the heart - worshipped by other civilisations of the time. Celt warriors saw the head as the home of the soul, even believing the head could live without the body. Probably for that reason alone the Celts in early times cut off their foes' heads and had them borne from the field of conflict, often hanging from the necks of their horses. They would show off the heads on posts outside their settlements or nail them up on the door posts in the way hunters showed off stags' heads as trophies. Sometimes - as was observed by the Romans - the Celts preserved the heads of their most important opponents by embalming them in cedar oil and keeping them in ornate chests.

The Romans discovered these activities on defeating the Salii, one of the Gaulish sub-groups. A sanctuary had been built at Entremon in the Provence region, dedicated to the cult of the severed head. There were carved heads, but there were also the remains of human heads, and several items were found in stone pillars at Roquepertuse in the area of Bouches-du-Rhone.

As befits a place in Celtic mythology, the head features in different ways, as in the Welsh legend of Benigeid Vran. When fatally wounded in the war with the Matholwch he asks his followers to behead him and take his head home from the land of the Gaels (Ireland). during the long crossing - in the legend - he ate, drank and talked as he had done before. In later years when the Celts no longer practiced decapitation the head still played an important role in their culture. Carvings were made in stone and sited at sacred venues such as temples, shrines or sacred wells, the heads guarding the faithful. Head carvings were also used to decorate everyday things. Digs have yielded buckets, bowls and other household items with head carvings as handles.

Heads you lose

The taking of heads was not restricted to defeated enemies...
The taking of heads was not restricted to defeated enemies... | Source

The Helvetii

were a Celtic tribe who wished to cross Gaul to settle on the Atlantic coast, having been driven from their homeland in what is now western Switzerland and southern Germany. In 58 BC Julius Caesar, fearing their being in the region would unsettle the Gauls refused them permission, but where Geneva is now they advanced nonetheless. Caesar, unable to stop them because his supplies were slow in catching up with him, caught up with the Helvetii under Orgetorix at Bibracte (Saone-et-Loire in eastern France) and routed them with the aid of six legions (including a cohort of pro-Roman Gauls. He captured two of Orgetorix' younger offspring and the baggage train but the Helvetii were able to outstrip the more cumbersome Roman army, achieving 60 kilometres in four days.Two tribes allied to the Helvetii wedged the Roman army in but were defeated and the Helvetii were finally obliged to yield.

Next - 4: High Crosses to Hwicce

Julius Caesar accepts the Helvetii surrender after their defeat at Bibracte. Two of the chief Orgetorix' offspring are captured with his' baggage train, but Caesar has to chase them 60 km before he can consider Gaul 'safe' from them crossing
Julius Caesar accepts the Helvetii surrender after their defeat at Bibracte. Two of the chief Orgetorix' offspring are captured with his' baggage train, but Caesar has to chase them 60 km before he can consider Gaul 'safe' from them crossing | Source

Immerse yourself in the flow of Celtic myth and legend, follow the stories through a dream world guided by Peter Berresford-Ellis. Sometimes dark and foreboding, sometimes lighter, always colourful, the world the Celtic gods inhabited would never be drab.

Celtic identity

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6 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

Who needs history books. If I want to know something about Europe I just turn to you. Well done and thanks for the lesson.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Well now, thanks Bill. Shucks (taking a bow), it's nuthin'. Mind you, having said that, you could come a cropper just taking my word for it!

Seriously, though, there's a lot of note-taking gone on there. Months, in fact, sitting in MacDonald's and slurping coffee with mayhem going on around. Couldn't do it at home.

Anyway, there's plenty more where that came from. Probably as many again and more pages (there's only so much you can put in a TV programme before you have to slot in a commercial break, as you know, and the same goes with writing. Not everybody out there is a literary giant).


WiccanSage profile image

WiccanSage 3 years ago

OMG is that a real head? Ahhh! Good history lesson, though, thanks.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

WiccanSage, thanks for the visit and comment. The choice of image was fairly gruesome, and this was the least of most - if you know what I mean. It's got to be a mock-up to show what they got up to, as opposed to being an original (would have rotted away by now I think, even with the preparations they put on).


CarolynEmerick profile image

CarolynEmerick 2 years ago

Hi Alan, I'm so glad I found your profile, you've got some great articles here. I've been giving you some shares on my FB pages ;-) Can't wait to read some more!


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Glad you like them Carolyn. When you've finished with the Celts there are the Vikings and onward to the Conquest - another bunch of Vikings in disguise.

Enjoy.

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