20. Celtic consciousness

The Celts

The name ‘Celts’ is used here as a description for the conglomerate of tribes making up the primal inhabitants of the core of what later became the European cultural area. It also includes the subsequent scattering of certain tribes towards the fringes (fig. 119). Their origin can be found in the hunters and nomadic people, which moved – around 2500 BC – from the Russian tundras towards the west (LAING, 1992).


Fig. 119 – Cultural provinces and expansions of the Celts, according to ROSS (1970/1986).

The Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus used the name ‘Keltopi‘ in the fifth century BC to describe the tribes north of the Alps. Julius Caesar gave in his book on the Gallic wars (‘Commentarii de bello Gallico‘) an extensive account of the ‘Galli‘ and the ‘Celtae‘. The main source is, however, the lost work of Posidonius, but recorded by Diodorus Siculus and Strabo (DILLON & CHADWICK, 1967).

The connection with a wandering lifestyle was strongly present in the early artistic expressions. Relative small art- and domestic implements were easy to carry. KITZINGER (1940/1983, p. 46) said: ‘This northern art was the opposite of Mediterranean art in almost every aspect; associated in its origins with wandering tribes, it was almost entirely confined to such portable objects as personal ornaments, weapons and implements and did not include monuments such as stone buildings, fresco paintings, mosaics or large-scale sculpture. Goldsmiths’ work, enamelling, the casting of small bronze objects and the carving of bone were the crafts at which the northern artists excelled.’


Fig. 120 – A reconstruction of a fibula (brooche), used to fasten clothing. In: HAFFNER  (1989).

An artistic craftsmanship can be observed in the decorations of jewellery, household implements, weaponry and saddles (fig. 120). Spirals, zigzags and step-patterns were placed in a geometric setting, sometimes with motifs of (stylistic) animals. Fine examples of such art products are the assemblages of horse-harnesses from the fifth century BC, made up from circles and swastikas in a three- and four-fold setting (fig. 121). In particular, the metal parts of a harness, like a snaffle, cinches, chest plate, and the part under the tail were very suitable for decoration.


Fig. 121 – Parts of a horse-harness with three- and fourfold symmetry. Left: From a grave in Somme-Bionne (Marne, France), fifth century BC; Right: Ornament with open work from a horse-harness, end of the fifth century BC, British Museum, London.

The (arbitrary) limitation of the period of the Celtic cultural prominence is from about 1000 BC until the beginning of the Christian era. Archaeologists have subdivided and named this period after the two main locations of artefacts: Hallstätt, near Bad Gastein in Austria (fig. 122) and La Tène, near Neuchatel in Switzerland (fig. 123; for the locations see also fig. 119).


Fig. 122 – A view of the Hallstatter See (Salzkammergut, Austria) (Photo: Marten Kuilman, March 2007).


Fig. 123 – La Tène, (meaning: the shallows) is situated at the northern part of Lake Neuchatel (Suisse) is another major archaeological location in relation to the Celt. Soon after the discovery in the mid 19th cent., the La Tène Culture (LTC)/La Tène Period was recognized as typical of the later Iron Age in much of Central Europe. (Photo: Marten Kuilman, Febr. 2012).

The Hallstatt-culture is dated between 1000 and 500 BC (FINLAY, 1973). Georg Ramsauer, director of the salt mine of Hallstätt, discovered the prehistoric burial field, where the first implements were found, in 1846. He excavated between the years 1846 and 1862 nearly thousand graves. From 1876 onwards also scholars from the Academy of Science in Vienna studied the salt mines and the burial-grounds and defined the bulk of material as a ‘culture’, which had reached its prominence around 770 BC (fig. 124).


Fig. 124 – A historic view of Salzkammergut in Austria. Salt production took place in the area near Bad Gastein from prehistoric times. The remnants of activity of the ‘Keltoi‘, preserved in the mines and burial fields, provided the material that was (later) scientifically identified as the Halstätt-culture, flowering between 1000 and 500 BC.

The La Tène-culture is younger and divided in three periods: La Tène I (450 – 250 BC), La Tène II (250 – 100 BC) and La Tène III (from 100 BC) (BRUNAUX, 1987). The rich source-area is situated near the eastern part of the Lake of Neuchatel (La Tène means ‘the shallows’). The research started in 1858, after the water had fallen to an unusual low level and prehistoric woodwork became in sight. Archaeologists found many works of art. The abundance (in details and quality) surpassed the finds in the Hallstatt area and pointed to a higher level of civilization with a cosmopolitan character. The ‘Latenium’ (Musée Cantonal d’Archeologie at Hauterive, Suisse) has a large collection of the material, which was found at the site along the lake.

The Irish folk tale ‘Tain Bo Cualnge‘ (The Cattle Robbery of Cooley) gave an insight of a European society in the fifth century BC. Ireland was at that time divided in four provinces, called ‘coiceda‘. The names of the four kingdoms (Ulaid, Connachta, Laigin, Mumu) live on through the names of the present provinces in Ireland: Ulster, Connacht, Leinster en Munster. ‘Coiceda‘ means literally ‘fifth’ and is associated with the central province Meath (Mide), but this one is never mentioned as such (fig. 125).


Fig. 125 – The historic division of Ireland. The four provinces are Connaught, Ulster, Leinster and Munster, with Meath as an undescribed unit in the middle. They formed the political division of Ireland up to the year 1066 (left). The clerical division, as made up by the Roman Catholilc Church from the twelfth century up to the Reformation, is shown to the right. According to MÜLLER (1961).

Together with the division in geographical place, there is also a division in time (seasons). The Celtic year constituted of festivities based on the sun- and moon cycle. Four important moments are recognized in the year:

1. Samain (Samhain). The new-year celebration in the night of the 31st of October and the first of November. The cattle was gathered and brought to the shelters for the winter. It was a time of contact with the Other World. Particular attention was paid to the dead, story telling, and predicting the future (MATTHEWS, 1989/1993). Bonfires were lit. At present, this event is still known as Hallowe’en in Anglo-Saxon countries. In a christianized form this is the celebration of All Saints Day (2 November). The bonfires are shifted (in England) to Guy Fawkes Night on the fifth of November.

2. Imbolc (or Oimelg). This festivity was, originally, a observance of the shepherds, on the first of February, when the worst of the winter was over. New lambs were born, providing a fresh supply of milk. Spring was in the air, and new life was immanent.

3. Beltaine (or Beltene) was the summer celebration on the first day of May. The winter quarters were left, and everybody was ready for a new start. The war god Belenos was worshiped to provide a rich harvest and well being of the cattle. Beltaine is still alive in the Celtic areas of Northern Italy, France, Great Britain and Ireland. Driving the animals between two fires symbolically cleans the cattle.

4. Lugnasad (Lughnasadh) was the moment of gathering of the whole tribe in the midst of summer (1st August). The time of bailing hay was over and the harvest of wheat and barley was immanent. This was the time of horse racing and other games and matches. In addition, marriages were arranged: by putting their hands through a hole in a rock the young pair promised to stay with together for one year and a day and then decide to continue or to divorce.

The Celtic power in ‘Europe’ reached a peak about 300 BC and developed into an authentic ‘European’ culture. The greatest geographical extension was in the second century BC when the whole of central-Europe, from Ireland to Istanbul could be called ‘Celtic’. Specific coins – always a good indicator of a civilization – occured from the late fourth to the midst of the first century BC (NASH, 1987).

The remains of Celtic sanctuaries, as found from Southern France (Roquepertuse) to Ireland, showed the depth of its influence. The heads of four horses (fig. 126) and a cult of the death – exhibit in the Musée Borely in Marseille – are fairly typical examples of this period. Much, however, has still to be discovered of the Celtic rural life-style and particular of their way of thinking.


Fig. 126 – Four heads of horses in a Celtic sanctuary in Southern France, found near Roquepertuse (Bouches-du-Rhone). This decoration, which was probably used as a girder above a door, is now in the Musée archeologique at Marseille (Chateau Borely). Third century BC. Length 63 cm. The importance of the symbolic meaning of the four horses can not be established in this particular piece.

The original ‘invisible’ tetradic thinking, which might have been practiced in an animistic way by early Celtic tribes in Central Europe (like Halstatt and La Tène), reached the fringes of Europe during the expansions of the Celts (‘Keltenwanderungen‘, wanderings of the Celts; FINLAY, 1973) in the late fifth to the mid-third centuries BC.

Subsequent contact with Roman expansion resulted – at the beginning of the Christian era – to a rift in the (declining) influence of the Celtic culture in Europe: the river Rhine delimited approximately the boundary between the Roman (and Christian) predominance to the west and south and the established ‘Celtic’ tribal setting to the north and east.

A process of visualization of ideas started in the Roman controlled areas due to its relative openness to (Christian) influences – with its emphasis on identity and manifestation. This fermenting process led, in the early seventh century AD, to local centres of culture in Spain (Isidorus, bishop of Seville) and in Ireland. These centres provided – in historical hindsight – the archetypal Celtic-Christian visibility, which is the backbone of the early cultural presence of Europe-proper.

The synthesis of thoughts, which took place in the revival of the Celtic culture in the seventh to tenth century AD, can be seen as a merger of dualistic and quadruple backgrounds. The Books of Kells, Durrow, Durham, Lindisfarne and many lesser masterpieces (fig. 127) reflect the beauty, which resulted of this merger.


Fig. 127 – The Tree of Life, from a miniature in the ‘Litterae paulinae‘, Northumberland, eighth century. It is good to realize that – besides the known masterpieces – there is a large number of lesser virtuous Celtic-Christian books, which contributed to the early visibility of the European culture.

The first emigrations from the cultural centre of Ireland took place in the middle of the sixth century: Colmcille left from Iona (in Scotland), Aidan from Iona to Lindisfarne (Northumbria). The prime motivation of the monastic movement was ascetically rather than evangelical in search for penitential surroundings (like the Irish islands of Skellig and Aran). In short: a search for extremes.

When the Irish monk Columba (born in 543 AD) and his companions sailed for the continent, shortly before 600 AD, he was one of the first generations of ‘Scotti‘, who had the intention to spread Christ’s kingdom in the ‘terra ignota‘ (MACKEY, 1989). The ‘peregrinatio‘, as the spiritual inspired abandoning of the homeland was called, was important for a century and a half: from 600 to 750 AD.

Columba traveled from Bangor (in Wales) to the Vosges, where he founded the monastery of Annegray on the ruins of an old Roman fort destroyed by Atttila in 451 AD. Later he extended his influence to Luxeuil, eight miles to the west. He composed the ‘Regula Monachorum’: severe rules for the monastery in which obedience and fidelity were the highest aims. The ‘Regula Coenobialis‘ was a series of punishments with the emphasis on personal confession of faults. The ‘Penitential’, written for the laity, was a culmination of two-fold thinking:

‘the talkative is to be punished with silence,

the restless with the practice of gentleness,

the gluttonous with fasting,

the sleepy with watching,

the proud with imprisonment,

the deserter with expulsion’

Hundred and twenty days on water and bread was the punishment for sinners. This rigorous diet had some followers in France, but also met with opposition. Columba was driven out of Luxeuil in 610. He moved to Bregenz (Austria) and subsequently to Bobbio (Italy). He died in 615 AD.

Fiachra and Goban (‘little mouth’) also belonged to the first generation of Irish missionaries. The former lived around 630 in a hermitage in the forest of Breuil, in the Brie country east of Paris near Meaux. He founded the first hostel for Irish pilgrims, and his vegetable garden was famous. This gained him the patronage of gardeners (St. Fiachra and the spade). He died around 670. Goban was murdered on the 20th of June 670 to the west of Laon.

St. Kilian, St. Anian and St. Marin went to Central Europe. St. Kilian was tortured in Würzburg in 689 and St. Marin suffered the same fate in November 697 in Wilparting. Virgil of Salzburg was an Irish missionary in Austria. He was born as Fergil in the Trim area (Central Ireland) and known as the author of a book on cosmography (LÖWE, 1982).

The second generation ‘Scotti peregrini‘ – now used as a collective noun for all the religious wanderers from (North) England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland – started in the ninth and continued to the second half of the twelfth century and covered the greater part of Europe (fig. 128). Sedulius Scottus (in Liège) and Johannes Scottus Eriugena (in Laon) were two prominent representatives in the Carolingian world (HELLMANN et al., 1906). Other members of the Laon-group of scholars comprised Martin, Aldelm (brother of Eriugena) and Elias (bishop of Angoulême).


Fig. 128 – Some of the major places of settlement of Celtic monks on the continent of Europe between the seventh and ninth century AD, according to McNEILL (1974). The map represents the places where the influence of the first and second generation of Irish missionaries (‘Scotti‘) were felt. Before the year 1000 some ten manuscripts were recorded on Irish soil, while more than fifty could be found in Continental libraries like Würzburg, St. Gallen and Milan (MACKEY, 1989).

A good example of the intellectual climate in this period is given by William of Malmesbury and recorded by RUSSELL (1945, p. 403) and MACKEY (1989). Charles the Bald (died in 877) dined with Eriugena, and asked him: “Quid distat inter sottum et Scottum?” (What separates a fool from an Irishman?), and John replied: “Tabula tantum” (Only the dinner table)(well-stocked with wine). This answer was regarded for a long time as the best ‘bon mot‘ of the Middle Ages.

McNEILL (1974) described, in his history of the Celtic churches between 200 en 1200 AD, the influence of the Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries on the European continent. ‘Schottenklöster‘ (monasteries of the ‘Scotti‘) were founded in Würzburg (1134), Nürnberg (1140?), Konstanz (1142), Vienna (1156), Erfurt (1183) and even as far as Kiev (up until 1241, when the invasion of the Mongols made further communication impossible). The first five abbots of the Waulsort monastery (in Belgium) were Irish.

The royal pilgrim Colman, son of Maelseachlainn Mor and grandson of Brian Boru, was hanged as a spy on the 17th of July 1012 at Stockerau near Vienna, on his way to the Holy Land. His body was brought to Melk, where around his tomb the great Benedictine Abbey arose from 1089 on. St. Koloman (Colomanus) is still the patron saint of Austria. An illustration of Albrecht Dürer (from 1513) showed him as a pilgrim, with the emblems of church and synagogue on his hat (fig. 129).


Fig. 129 – Koloman (Colomanus) as an Irish pilgrim, who was murdered on his way to the Holy Land at Stockerau near Vienna in 1012. The woodcut is of Albrecht Dürer and dated from 1513.

Both the first and second generation ‘Scotti‘ contributed to a ‘feed-back’ of Celtic (Christian) culture to the areas of the Celtic ‘home ground’ in central Europe. However, there was also – simultaneously – a movement from the south, where the Roman Church expanded her version of Christianity to the areas north of the Alps (LAWRENCE, 1984).

PORTER (1931) gave an accurate account of the threat which was posed by the intellectual exodus of the islands to the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, and the choice which had to be made: Rome or Armagh (in particular in such matters as the kind of tonsure and the computation of the date of Eastern). These issues became – and this has never been highlighted – above all a struggle for the roots of visibility.

The first (Celtic) version had a close connection with the tetradic frame of mind and emphasized the four ‘senses‘ as a communication model. The Venerable Bede (673 – 735) and later Alcuin (735 – 804; his ‘Commentarium in Apocalypsin‘ (I,1) opened with the ‘perfectio‘ of four) were the theologians, who vigorously propagated these ideas.

The second version of the Roman Church was dominated by the thinking in opposites, based on the same principles, which had resulted in the Roman Empire: expansion by force, hierarchic organization and guarding the identity (by establishing civil rights). Pope Gregory the Great, in the papal office from 590 – 604, choose England as his field of battle. He sent, as a countermeasure, a ‘heavy-weight’ like Augustine (of Canterbury; not to be confused with St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the Church fathers) to England in 597 and visited England himself in 601, accompanied by forty monks, sacred vessels and many manuscripts, to turn the ‘Anglo’s into angels‘  (OGILVY, 1936).

The spiritual clash on the eve of the European transition to cultural visibility is one of the most fascinating episodes in its history. It was never posed as an intellectual struggle between higher and lower division thinking. Nevertheless, it is here, in the period leading to the eight century AD, that the visibility of Europe as a cultural unity was established. And in hindsight, it was the victory of dualism or ‘Roman’ way of thinking, which contributed most to the birthright of the young European culture. The alternative – the ‘Celtic’ spirit of tetragonism – would have resulted, most likely, in a society of quarreling tribes and clans – not unlike the history of Africa in the present day, but not in a united Europe, as we know it today.

The same devotion as shown in the Gospel books can be found in the Celtic high-crosses, which are fairly widespread over Ireland and a part of England (HARBISON, 1983). Pagan and Christian elements are joined in harmony in the sculpture of the crosses. A good example is the Gosforth-cross (in Northumbria) with motifs from the Nordic mythology. It shows the end of the world or ‘Ragnarok‘ (BLACKER & LOEWE, 1975; BAILEY, 1980). Fig. 130 gives an illustration of the named cross from the work of COLLINGWOOD (1927/1989) on the Northumbrian Crosses of the pre-Norman Age.


Fig. 130 – The four sides of the high-cross in Gosford, Northumbria are decorated with illustrations of Nordic mythology, indicating the end of the world (Ragnarok/ Doomsday). A short description is given in the text. From W.G. Collingwood’s pioneering book on the ‘Northumbrian crosses of the preNorman Age’ (1927/1989).

The east side of the cross (right) showed a crucifixion, where the lanse-bearer Longinus stands opposite a woman. It is the only explicit Christian element in the decoration of the cross. The rest of the story is a depiction of the overthrow and destruction of the gods in the Nordic mythology (Ragnarok), as described by the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson (1179 -1241) in his ‘Edda’.

The west side of the cross (second from the left) described two scenes: the god Heimdallr with a Gjallar horn. Below is the traditional enemy, the god Loki (or Loptr), son of the giant Farbauti, who is punished for the death of the innocent Baldr. Loki is attacked by a snake, which spit poison on his forehead. His wife Sigyn collects the poison in a dish. The other sculptures are more difficult to interpret. It seems that a connection is sought between the transitional episodes in the world of Odin, Christ and the end of the world (Doomsday).

The siting of the crosses had a protective significance and marked the boundaries of monasteries (RICHARDSON & SCARRY, 1990). The eighth century ‘Book of Mulling’  (Dublin, Trinity College Library MS 60 (A. I. 15) gave a plan of a monastery with the position of the crosses (fig. 131). The North-cross is dedicated to St. John, the East-cross to St. Matthew, the South-cross to St. Mark and the West-cross to St. Luke. In a plan, they form a cross, with the monastery is the centre. Associated with the high crosses are, in an ideal setting, the so-called Evangelist- and Prophet crosses. They are dedicated to the Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah and Isaiah. Van SCHALKWIJK (1989) positioned them at the intermediate wind-directions.


Fig. 131 – The position of the high crosses in their ideal setting, according to the ‘Book of Mulling’ (eighth century) and recorded by RICHARDSON & SCARRY (1990)/van SCHALKWIJK (1989).

The Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks, with their Christian message covered in Celtic wrappings, were not alone to emphasize the elements of the tetradic way of thinking. The artists in the silver workshops in Kent expressed – in the seventh century AD – the same thoughts as the monks in the scriptoria of the monasteries in Ireland, Middle England and Northern Spain. The sculptors of the high crosses used artistic metaphors, which were closely related to the motifs on closing slabs of the Longobardic stonemasons (fig. 132). All these artists drew from the wells of (pre)historic Celtic ideas, endemic in Europe. This pattern of crosses was used until the twelfth century, when the Latin crosses and the crucifix took over. This transition was gradual, and intermediate forms, like the circle-heads and rings-heads from the Viking-times, can be distinguished.


Fig. 132 – The imagery of the early Middle Ages indicated a preference of the tetradic motif. The expansion of the Vikings brought Norse craftsmanship under the attention of the conquered people and attributed to a further tetradic appreciation. 1. Brooch from Suffolk, early seventh century; 2. Anglo-Saxon brooch, Colchester, tenth century; 3. Closing slab from Malles, San Benedetto, Carolingian times; 4. Byzantine decoration in the San Marc, Venice, tenth to eleventh century.

The ‘Celtic’ language of symbolism, which is remarkable consistent over large areas in place and time in Europe, has found in the Christian imagery, derived from the melting pot of Egyptian, Persian and Assyrian cultures, a point of reference. The recognition lies in the handling of the universal tension between lower and higher forms of division thinking. And also in the dealing with the position of an observer in the dynamic field of creation and devotion, with the ultimate consequences for the value as a human being.

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