Preface

This book has come about because of my longstanding fascination for the ancient Celts and, in particular, for Celtic myth and religion, upon which most of my previous research work has been based. In all the sources for the period of the pagan Celts (roughly 600 BC - AD 400), the role of animals in both the secular and the sacred worlds appears to have been dominant and essential. The close association between what were basically rural communities and the natural world manifested itself not only in direct economic dependence upon the land, its crops and herds, but also in the perception of a strong link between animals and the supernatural.

My evidence for animals in the Celtic world, a world which stretched from Ireland in the extreme west to Czechoslovakia in the east and which encompassed much of Europe north of the Alps, ranges between that of archaeology and that of written documents. The archaeological material consists of the remains of the animals themselves in the faunal assemblages of Celtic sites. It embraces also the iconography - the representation of animals - of both the pre-Roman and Romano-Celtic periods. The written material falls into two categories: first, there exist the comments of Graeco-Roman observers of the Celts whom they encountered, directly or indirectly, in such lands as Gaul and Britain. These have the merit of contemporaneity but the defect of bias and misunderstanding. There is always the danger that the so-called 'civilized' product of the Mediterranean world will paint a picture of a 'barbarian savage' with quaint and primitive customs, and will chronicle alien traditions in such a manner as to foster this image. The second group of documents consists of the written compilations of the oral traditions in Ireland and Wales. These have, again, to be treated with caution since they pertain only to the western periphery of the Celtic world and should not be used as sources for the European mainland. The other problem concerns chronology: the earliest vernacular writings (that is documents actually written in Welsh or Irish as opposed to Latin) date, for the most part, no earlier than the early medieval period: they were thus compiled much later than the pagan Celtic period and, what is more, they were set down within a Christian milieu, by monks working in monasteries. From the very clear links between some of the documentary sources and information taken from the classical authors and archaeology, it is possible to infer that some of the vernacular written material does pertain to earlier, pre-Christian periods. The Insular myths abound in gods, and no reference is made to Christianity.

In this book, the role of animals in all aspects of Celtic life is explored. I should make it clear that, notwithstanding the wide geographical area inhabited by the ancient Celts, much of my source material is necessarily taken from the western regions, from Gaul and Britain, although cognisance is also taken of that from further east. The work discusses the place of animals in the economy; in hunting; in warfare; in art; and in ritual practices. The oral tradition of Wales and Ireland, with its rich mythical treatment of animals, is examined separately. The final main section details the close relationship between animals and the gods, which manifested itself in the remarkable imagery and symbolism of the Romano-Celtic period.

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