Cult of the Wqrror

Warfare in various forms was central to Celtic society, and classical historians have labeled the Celts a warlike people. In the first century AD the Roman chronicler Strabo described the Gauls as warlike; "the whole nation... is war mad, both high-spirited and ready for battle." Within Celtic culture the warrior was revered, and together with druids and bards he held a unique place in Celtic myth.

Previous page: A Celtic fortified center (Oppidum) under attack from another Celtic tribe. It was traditonal to display the severed heads of foes spitted on spears above the ramparts.

j f the druids ran the religious affairs of the ! Celts, the secular rulers and aristocracy were drawn from among the warriors. Later Irish and Welsh chronicles reflect this esteem for warriors, who dominated a semi-feudal tribal structure where land and power were linked to prowess in combat. Archaeological evidence shows that warriors were buried sword in hand, surrounded by the panoply of warfare: chariots, armor, shield, and spear, and food and wine to sustain the warrior in the afterlife.

The importance and status of the warrior within society was ev ident, but it was also related to success—defending society against aggressors. The speed with which Gallic society collapsed during Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul is linked to the loss of a whole generation of warriors on the battlefield, and Gallic disillusionment with the inability of their heroes to stop the Roman invader.

The Celts were characterized as being ferocious in battle, and fearless to the point of impetuosity. Over the centuries this developed into a cult, and influenced the tactical operation of Celtic armies for better or worse. A Roman historian writing in 189 BC said of the Galatians (Asiatic Celts) that; "they drove everything before them, and walls could not resist their fur)-." Caesar himself testified to Gallic courage and ferocity on the battlefield, and similar traits can be found in accounts of Celtic warriors in Roman service, in battle against Dark Age barbarians, and even in the actions of Scottish or Irish soldiers of more recent times.

Right: This Roman copy of the Greek sculpture known as The Dying Gaul, depicts a Celtic warrior, or gaesatae. of the 3rd century bc. These warriors fought naked except for a metal tore around the neck.

Cu Chulainn's fury

One martial trait that was distinctive but not necessarily unique was blood-lust. In both classical accounts and in later Irish mythology, some warriors worked themselves into a frenzy before battle, making them formidable and almost superhuman opponents (see pages 175-175). In the Irish Tain bo Cualnge, the hero Cu Chulainn is described:

"A spasm lore through him... it distorted him, making him a monstrous thing... his head swelled and pounded."

The chronicle describes him being seized by rage, and he fought like an animal. After the battle, the blood-lust passed, and he returned to his normal persona. This trait was particularly admired by the Celts; evidence to them that the warrior was the stuff of heroic myth. __

During the third century BC, some Celtic warriors known as gaesatae fought naked, wearing nothing but metal tores around their necks. The contemporary reliefs and sculptures of "Dying Gauls" sculpture reflect this habit, which may have had religious or supernatural overtones. This supernatural link with the warrior has a parallel in later Irish chronicles, where the talcs contain numerous references to magic weapons or mystical powers.

In Celtic warfare, a fullscale battle was a rare occurrence, and among the warrior aristocracy, feasting and mock fighting was interspersed with raids on neighboring tribes or provinces, or in pre-Roman Gaul, intermittent incursions into the richer lands of the southern Mediterranean. These martial feats were duly recounted by bards, or were recorded in the later Celtic chronicles.

Personal bravery was honored above almost everything else, and accounts of Celtic warfare are scattered with references to champions and records of personal valor. This glorification of the warrior and his skills led to an emphasis on indiv idual deeds, rather than providing for a skilled and unified military structure. The Romans adopted the reverse approach, where military skill was combined with cohesion and order on the battlefield. Heroics and recklessness had little place in the Roman army, and when the two systems clashed the Celts were annihilated.

Left: This bronze helmet from the 1st century ec. found in the River Thames, London, near Waterloo Bridge, is the only horned iron age helmet to have been found anywhere. It has repoussé decoration in La Tène style.

Below: Tores had a religious significance for their warrior wearers. This one, found at Snettisham, England is made from eight twisted strands, and dates from just before Julius Caesar's expedition to Albion (Britain) in 43 bc.

Soldier Helmet 1008
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