Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: pre-Roman Celtic Society, part one

Maiden Castle, Dorset, 1935. (enhanced and enlarged to 1072x920 -click to enlarge)
Maiden Castle is the largest hill fort in western Europe (47 acres). Approaching it from the road, it first appears as a natural hill but with a couple of notches at one end. Walking through the enclosure, you feel like an ant. The aerial view is the only way to grasp its immensity. Starting as an unremarkable Neolithic enclosure in about 4,000 BC, it reached its current size in about 450 BC.

Although looking formidable, it was just too vast to defend properly and there was probably no good reason to even attempt any attack. Like many large structures the world over, it was more a symbol of societal cooperation and unity. Even something relatively smaller, such as an African kraal was too big for the chief's family to build and maintain and its construction cemented relationships of obligation between the  chief and his people. You see the same sort of relationships being formed in the Potlach events of the American Pacific Northwest and the Canadian west coast native peoples such as the Haida.

But a large central place, or even an exceptionally large chief's house is no criterion to establish a tribal identity with the Celts and I will have more to say on this later in the series. We have very strong clues about the structure of the society with the early Irish laws which, although penned in the early Medieval period contain enough evidence to be certain of their Iron Age origins. A person's status was determined with their "honour price", and instead of there being a single king ruling over all, there were levels of kingship even down to a village level. We also know of multiple tribal kings in Britain from Caesar:  "...Cassivellaunus sent envoys to Kent ordering the four kings of that region, Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximagulus, and Segovax, to collect all their troops and make a surprise attack on the naval camp." (IV, 22). These names are not really names but titles Cingetorix is "infantry-king"; Carvilius is "hereditary chief";  Taximagulus is "Commander-in chief"; and I translate Segovax as something like "trade-speaker". "King" (rix) is not the inherited title it is today, the closest to that position would be Carvillios (Celtic spelling) who would have been the ruler or chief of the Cantii. The title "Rix" (or Latinized Rex need not mean that the associated name was the ruler of any tribe at all. He would more likely have been in charge of its military and as troops were paid for with coins, it is his name that appears on them. I am convinced that the Dobunnic "kings"  Comux... Eisu... Catti... Inam... as seen in coin legends are all contemporary and not sequential kings at all. These were all issuers of coins to purchase troops and were possibly vying with each other to get troops to fight each other or an external foe.

Caesar's perception of kings might have been limited only to those kings with the power to communicate with  him, or with his foes, but he does understand that the Druid class had influence right down to even a family level:
"In Gaul, not only every tribe, canton, and subdivision of a canton, but almost every family, is divided into rival factions. At the head of these factions are men who are regarded by their followers as having particularly great prestige, and these have the final say on all questions that come up for judgement and in all discussions of policy. The object of this ancient custom seems to have been to ensure that all the common people should have protection against the strong; for each leader sees that no one gets the better of his supporters by force or by cunning - or, if he fails to do so, is utterly discredited". (VI, 11)

Contrary to popular opinion, the Druid were not priests, but primarily judges. The only known name of a druid that has survived is Diviciacus (Latin name ending, should be -os). It means "the avenger".

Tomorrow, were the Druids "kings"? A tantalizing theory of Sean B. Dunham.

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