For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Celts Of The Poetic Isles: Makers, Not Destroyers

I've just finished reading Graham Robb's The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe and feel a mixture of satisfaction and frustration. Sure, the book is magnificently researched and compellingly written in the main — though I kept getting bogged down in a mass of astronomical and mathematical detail which never seemed fully comprehensible to the layman (or to this layman, at any rate). However, his thesis — that the Celts were far more sophisticated than we think — appeals to me. I've always had a sneaking desire to identify with some kind of 'Celtic' ancestry, though, of course, the line has been tangled over the centuries by all kinds of other settlers and invaders, such as the Romans, the Jutes, the Angles, the Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans.

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Our view of this ragbag assortment of tribes we call the Celts (who colonised Europe between 600 BC until they were conquered by the Romans 400 years later) is coloured by the Romans' opinion of them as 'hairy barbarians'. True, they left no written records or durable architecture, were violently quarrelsome — resulting in much tribal warfare — and overindulged in orgies of human sacrifice. However their cultural artefacts — all that gold, silver and bronze metalwork, decorated with swirling spirals and geometric patterns — are exquisite. Robb believes passionately that their ruling spiritual leaders, the Druids, were scientists as well as shamans, and were able to survey and map the land using a combination of Pythagorean mathematics and geomancy. With manic dedication he gradually lays bare an impressive, seemingly convincing grid of intersecting latitudes, meridians and solar pathways, which connect up Gallic and British sacred sites (nemetons) and hill-top settlements (oppida). These sites and settlements, he argues, were intentionally aligned like this — on a bearing aimed at sunrise during the summer and winter solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes — in order to propitiate the sun god, whom he identifies as Herakles.

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How much real historical truth there is in all this I'm not qualified to say, though I've noticed that, on a trawl through the internet, endorsements by professional archaeologists are hard to find. But, hey, who cares? The book is a detective story or treasure hunt, told with enthusiasm and humour, and relies necessarily on myth and scant historical record to produce a theory which is artistically satisfying and almost intellectually convincing.

One fact I'd forgotten is that the name 'Britain' derives from 'Prettanike', the name used by the Greek geographer and explorer Pytheas of Massalia (present-day Marseille) to call our country. (Pytheas explored northwest Europe, circumnavigating and visiting 'Prettanike', as astonishingly early as 325 BC.) The Britains themselves were known as the 'Pritani'. Robb writes:

Some Celtic tribes, like the 'painted' Pictones or Pictavi of Gaul, were named for their visible attributes. Many others had names that referred to religious ritual: the People of the Dance (Lingones), of the Sanctuary (Nemetes), of the Cauldron (Parisii); the Shining Ones (Leuci), the Bright Ones (Glanici). The Pritani of Britannia probably belonged to the latter group. The name is often found, as Prito, Pritto, Pritillius, or Pritmanus, on fragments of Iron Age and Gallo-Roman pottery from Gaul and northern Germania. Like 'Mason' or 'Smith', the name was the mark of a profession. In ancient Celtic, 'pritios' had the same dual meaning as the Greek 'poietes': a creator, a craftsman, an enchanter and a poet.

The protohistoric inhabitants of Britain were not, by name, the face-painted belligerents beloved of British nationalists. They were makers, not destroyers. They excelled in the arts of verse and incantation. The name 'Prettanike' belongs to the distant age when an early form of Druidism existed in the British Isles. The scientific traditions of the Druids may have been Hellenistic, but their bardic and religious heritage belonged to the ancient land that should now be reimagined as the Poetic Isles.

The British Celts as creators, craftsmen, enchanters, poets; makers, not destroyers. The British Isles as the Poetic Isles. I like the idea of that artistic heritage, whether half-imagined or not.

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George said...

Very interesting, Robert. I've spent considerable time over the years researching my family history, and it's now established that my Irish ancestors descended from the Celts who invaded Ireland from Galicia sometime around 150 B.C. I can trace my paternal line back to Nial of the Nine Hostages, a Celtic descendant who reigned in Ireland from 370 to 405 A.D.

Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed it!

The Solitary Walker said...

George, your research is astounding — I didn't think it was possible to to so far back! It's just fantastic. I got stuck in the 18th century when I tried to trace my mother's line last year after meeting some cousins at a funeral and getting inspired. But I don't suppose I've really tried that hard.

I'm imagining you with a torc and woad-painted skin now...