LIFE ON THE FRINGE - 4: High Crosses, Hill Forts and Hwicca

Celtic Cross ornamentation has its roots in pre-Christian art-forms

Ornate Celtic cross showing motifs such as knot pattern-work and bosses. There are many of these spread not only around traditional Celtic territories but also in Northern England - Cumbria, Northumbria and some rural Yorkshire/Lancashire sites
Ornate Celtic cross showing motifs such as knot pattern-work and bosses. There are many of these spread not only around traditional Celtic territories but also in Northern England - Cumbria, Northumbria and some rural Yorkshire/Lancashire sites | Source
This is the Houelt cross of Llantwit Major in the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales, another famous Celtic cross design
This is the Houelt cross of Llantwit Major in the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales, another famous Celtic cross design | Source

An artform in themselves, Celtic crosses influenced art in the non-Celtic parts of the British Isles and spread across the north of Northumbria as far south as Deira (modern-day Yorkshire and Lancashire), between the Humber and the Mersey as well as across the Gaelic-speaking world.

The imagery is beyond imaginative, it's legendary. The Norsemen in the north of England adopted and adapted the style to their own tastes, using figures from their own pre-Christian past as well as from Christian teaching.

Conflicting messages

Study of the Celts can lead to conflicting messages. On the one side we have a highly organised defence system, warlike peoples such as the Belgae, the Trinovantes and Parisi and a formerly peaceful pro-Roman tribe such as the Iceni turn on their masters after a wrongdoing against Boudicca and her daughters that forces a Roman general into action. On the other side we have devout Christians from Ireland converting heathen Angles in Northumbria and Mercia. Let's go through some of the main features of Celtic and Roman Britain and Continental Europe.

HIGH CROSSES are well-known from Celtic culture, several examples being spread around Britain and Ireland in the west. Best examples are on Iona and Islay around Scotland, Kilmalkedar in Ireland and Llantwit Major in Wales. Some of these free-standing crosses are considered to be upward of twelve hundred years old. Early high crosses were often fairly plain, but many later ones were richly carved, including the knot work characteristic of Celtic Christian culture: - spirals, raised bosses, suns, animals and mythical beasts as well as stylised Biblical subjects. Celtic high crosses were often built at meeting places, sometimes within monastic sites but not necessarily to denote burial sites;

One famous Celtic High Cross is that at Llantwit Major (pron. 'Flantwit', but you've got to get your tongue behind the 'F' sound!) in the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales. If you look at the image above, you can see the intricate zig-zag stone-work and diagonal crosses on the vertical shaft and arms. This is after about two millennia, imagine the effect it had when first carved.

HILL FORTS were chosen by the Celts as observatory sites - to spot approaching foes, raiders - for their defensive qualities. some occupied by the Celts pre-date their arrival in Britain, and only needed modification to their own requirements.Instead of restoring the high wooden timber stockading to keep in livestock and enemies out, the Celts constructed great earthen ramparts that can be seen still in hilly regions of Britain. Some of the finest are in southern and western counties of England such as Maiden Castle near Dorchester in the south-west. A large enclosure of over forty acres, it is the largest Celtic hill fort that dates back to Iron Age Europe. Luckily several others are still well preserved, such as that at Eggardon at the end of a long chalk ridge that crosses southern England. The origins of 'don' or 'dun' endings to names denote Celtic hill fort origins. The way in at Maiden Castle can easily be seen, a labyrinthine series of earth ramparts to confuse and repel unwanted visitors, it had little effect on the Romans after their invasion of AD 43.

Hill forts were built near natural water sources such as the dew ponds and springs. Being important to the Celts, security and defence were great considerations, but not all hill forts were of military importance. They acted like spiders' webs for the tribe that lay claim to an area in a peaceful manner as well as warrior haven. They functioned as religious focal points and the Romans often observed the religious links of these hill forts, wary the Celts' gods might wreak vengeance on them. Often these locations fulfilled a cultural need, where craftsmen could work producing their votive wares.

HILL SITES/TORS. Early European tribes as well as the Celts made use of hills in religious rites. As the sun often entered worship, hills were ideal for observing its cycle across the northern hemisphere's sky. The outlook would be more dramatic if the land around was flat. It may be for this reason the Celts and their neighbours were drawn to uplands or mounds that rose above otherwise level ground in parts of southern and south-western Britain, i.e., Glastonbury Tor or Silbury Hill. The latter is the largest man-made hill in Western Europe, said to be around four millennia in age. Glastonbury was a natural hill, being a volcanic 'plug'.

Some hill sites linked to early religious rites are ringed by ridging or terracing, and experts have advanced varying theories to substantiate their arguments. One popular theory is that the ridging denotes the remains of prehistoric/neolithic procession routes around the site, used by worshippers in rising to the crest. There are also ideas that the ridging is only evidence of early farming practice;

HOK-BRAZ in Gaulish lore was a giant who lived on the Breton coast. He was seen as a threat to mariners, in that he was apt to swallow ships;

HORNS: many otherwise normal Celtic gods are shown sporting horns or antlers, i.e., bulls, goats, rams or stags. Early horned god sculptures have been located, and Iron Age coinage found with images of horned gods have also been unearthed. Horned gods were especially favoured by the Brigantes of central northern Britain. Although most horned gods are shown as men dressed in warrior style, horned goddesses are also shown at Icklingham in Suffolk. Animals werehighly important in Celtic culture, so perhaps the link should not be seen as surprising. Horns are shown as being symbolic of fertility, aggression and virility

Anybody who's watched 'Time Team' on television will recognise these hill forts from their digs. British leader Caractacus led a rebellion from Central Wales, using hill forts as bases to attack the Romans. Some of these forts were reduced by the Romans after rebellions were put down, and rendered uninhabitable. They still stand out against the surrounding countryside where they were developed and strengthened before being abandoned under later Roman rule

Celtic hill forts in Britain

Hill Forts... and Horned Gods

Old Oswestry Iron Age hill fort in Shropshire (Salop), shows its 'stepped' defences with an odd 'dimpled' effect (like a pie crust)
Old Oswestry Iron Age hill fort in Shropshire (Salop), shows its 'stepped' defences with an odd 'dimpled' effect (like a pie crust) | Source
Drawing of a Celtic hill fort showing the round houses within the stockade and very solid-looking gateway
Drawing of a Celtic hill fort showing the round houses within the stockade and very solid-looking gateway | Source
An image of the antlered god Cernunnos - Continental version of Herne the Hunter
An image of the antlered god Cernunnos - Continental version of Herne the Hunter | Source

Horses, Horse Sacrifice and Horse Goddesses

From grave goods found at burial sites, it is plain the Celts were noted horse lovers and they used horse-drawn chariots effectively in battle. A high regard for their horses is shown by imagery and carvings of horses located at different Celtic sites around Europe, including the enormous hillside horse carvings - usually in chalk soil - such as the Uffington white horse near Oxford. The horse was held in regard not so much for its performance in battle as for its speed, beauty, sexual prowess and fecundity.

Horse sacrifice and ritual practice around dead horses was commonplace. Some Iron Age burials contained chariots or waggons and horses - help for the long road to the Otherworld. They often also showed their gods on horseback, in warrior gear. Some pre-Roman Celtic sanctuaries in Southern Gaul were emblazoned with stone figures of mounted warriors. Mounted warrior gods especially were worshipped by the Catuvellauni, for instance, of central Britannia Major. The Celts in Gaul worshipped the horse goddess Epona, who may also be linked to Edain Echraidhe in Ireland and Rhiannon in Wales. The figure of Epona was found depicted on hundreds of stones in Gaul. She also found favour with the Romans, who took to worshipping her, often linked in Roman times with corn, fruit and fertility.

Horses were important to the Celts, venerated as gods and goddesses

Celtic horse coin design from an original - note the 'sun' circle design above the horse's back, another aspect of Celtic worship
Celtic horse coin design from an original - note the 'sun' circle design above the horse's back, another aspect of Celtic worship | Source

Houses, homes, hunter-gods, Hwicca/Hwicce

HOUSES/HOMES In lowland Iron Age Britain tended to be modelled on the round house, built around a central vertical post, with a timber frame secured to a vertical ring of outer posts. Walls were low, made from wattle and daub (usually lime and cow dung) with a conical thatched roof. Clusters of round houses were built to form settlements, often also including animal shelters and storage huts built in the same fashion as the dwellings. Rebuilt Celtic round houses can be seen in the Welsh Folk Museum at St. Fagans near Cardiff;

HUNTER-GODS.were highly regarded by the Celts, as was (the act of) hunting vital to survival. The hunter-gods were remarkable by their attire and weaponry. A hunter-god might, for example, be shown carrying the shorter hunting bow and a quiver of arrows, often followed by a hound. Although the aim of the hunt was to bring down an animal, the hunter-gods seem to have been on the side of the prey as well as with the hunter(s). Hunter-gods were often shown escorted by live horned animals, hinting at a close relationship between god and prey;,

HWICCA/HWICCE, an old Celtic kingdom that roughly encompassed land occupied by Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, centred on Deerhurst. In the days of early Anglian settlement it fell between Penda's Mercia, its native Celtic folk associated with witchcraft (Hwicca/Hwicce is pronounced 'Witche') and the dark arts. Hwicca lay on the eastern bank of the River Seoferna (Severn) and was contested with the kings of Wessex, who thought the territory should have been theirs along with Herefordshire, a territory which had also been annexed by the Mercian Aengle (Angles).

Next - 5: Ialonus, Ianuaria, Iberia, Iceni, Icovellauna and Imbolc

Houses, as dwellings or meeting places, Horned gods and the kingdom of Hwicce

Cutaway of a Celtic round house showing structure and floorspace use
Cutaway of a Celtic round house showing structure and floorspace use | Source
External view of a round house on the Iberian Peninsula
External view of a round house on the Iberian Peninsula | Source
Another depiction of the hunter god Cernunnos, this  being on one of the Gundestrup cauldron panels (Denmark)
Another depiction of the hunter god Cernunnos, this being on one of the Gundestrup cauldron panels (Denmark) | Source
The old kingdom of Hwicce outlined in white around the counties of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and south-western Warwickshire
The old kingdom of Hwicce outlined in white around the counties of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and south-western Warwickshire | Source

There were several Celtic kingdoms within Anglian territory that were allowed some degree of autonomy. Elmet within Deira (modern-day Yorkshire) was one, to an extent Hwicce was another.

Here was a Celtic kingdom near the border with Wales that was absorbed by Mercia in or around the 7th Century. What it's connection was with the uncanny will be borne out in the pages. Don't miss out on this oddity.

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2 comments

tirelesstraveler profile image

tirelesstraveler 3 years ago from California

Fascinating article. My husbands grandparents spoke a bit of the Celtic language. Your graphics are a great addition to the hub.


alancaster149 profile image

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

Thanks for dropping by tirelesstraveler. Which part of the world were your husband's grandparents from? There's quite a few in the Highlands and Islands who still speak it, and then there are a lot of Welsh speakers in mid and north Wales. I think the only parts of Ireland Gaelic isn't spoken is in Dublin (mostly English stock, like Cardiff and Swansea in Wales)

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