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Ghost stories of Gaul

Tonight I’ve been poring through archaeological notes on the nature of ancient Celtic religion for another writing project. Sometimes research is tedious work, but tonight from the dry fragments of archaeological data, with the full moon peering in my window, a ghost rose up and took hold of me, and I want to share its tale. Tonight under this full moon, let me tell you a story.

We are in the soft green landscape of northern Gaul, its wooded hills and valleys crossed by many streams. We are in the territory of the Bellovaci, a strong Belgic tribe. Caesar’s legions have not yet come to conquer this land – it is a tribal dominion still. That moon pours light over the landscape, a wide stream that courses by the walls of the dunum, the fortified city standing on the slope overlooking the valley. Inside the walls, buildings cluster, thatched roofs over timber-framed and wattle walls. Just inside the entrance gate of the dunum, there is a space set apart from all the rest.

A tall wooden palisade guards the boundary of this space, enclosing it seven feet high with pole stakes but for an entrance gate facing us at the east. At intervals along these walls stand tall posts, towering over the palisade, and on each is hung a set of battered arms: sword, spear, and the man-sized oval shields of Gaulish tribes, painted with now-faded tribal devices, cut and spattered with the traces of battle. Here and there, a Roman helm and shield hang, or perhaps a Greek set. The captured trophies of rival tribes and nations. And over the eastern entrance in the palisade, a great wooden portal looms high above us. Its double gates are hung on thick timber uprights which support two ranks of heavy lintel beams, as thick as a man’s waist. We can see the ornate carvings on the beams and gate glinting in the shifting light. We recognize these carvings: sinuous and twisting, coursing spirals and geometries, the artful madness of La Tène Celtic design, brought to life by its colorful paint and the flickering torches to either side of the gate. In the shadowed spaces between the ranked beams of the portal over the gates, we can see rows of skulls: dead warriors set to watching the gateway between the outer world and the sanctuary within. The gates swing outward.

We cross a threshold between the uprights of the portal and step onto a narrow wooden footbridge which spans the eight feet of deep boundary ditch inside the palisade. To either side of the footbridge, in the ditch and up against the palisade wall, the skulls of horned cattle are stacked into mounds, all facing us as we move through the crossing. Apotropaic guardians like the dead warriors on the outer walls, their eye hollows watch us. Beyond the stacked cattle heads, we can see the ditch running along the circumference of the enclosure, and in it the layered remains of many offerings: countless animal bones; cattle, pigs, horses, sheep, layered in with thousands of rusted, broken swords, splintered shields, old spearheads, decaying leather scabbards and the detritus of endless bits of old weaponry. For hundreds of years these offerings have been laid down here, one atop another as the older sacrifices sink into the earth at the bottom of the boundary ditch. When the arms displayed on the walls rust and their leather strappings crumble enough to fall, they will be laid into the boundary ditch with the bones of the most recent sacrificial animals, and another set will take their place.

In the precise geometric center of the rectangular enclosure, a roofed structure stands, its four ornately carved and decorated corner posts carefully aligned to the cardinal directions. A temple. Within its shelter, the hollow altars are delved into the earth: nine circular pits cut deep into the soil in an open circle facing us as we approach from the east; and in the center of the circle, a tenth, larger oval pit. A heavy-hewn table stands before the structure, blood-stained, and nearby also are cooking-pits. Here the sacrifices are made to the poetic invocations of the Vates, the Druidic priests who are entrusted with sacrifices, divinations, and the rites of religious observance. We can almost hear their intonations, the words uplifted, the sonorous chantings in the ancient Gaulish tongue. Here the offerings are dedicated – the many bright treasures, the fine weapons, the poured libations. The animals are brought, their blood spilled; parts of their bodies are given to the Gods and offered in the pits of the hollow altars, entrances into the Otherworld. The rest of the meat, sanctified by the touch of the Gods, is brought out and cooked in the cooking-fires, and shared with the gathered people of the tribe. The hollow altars will be covered between ceremonies, and the portions of the animals given to the Gods within them will be left there until the bones are free of flesh, and then the bones will be brought out and placed in the boundary ditch, as the ritual cycle continues.

Outside the temple, another, smaller building is enclosed with walls, and within are heaped treasures upon treasures. Golden torcs, arm-bands, necklaces, anklets, belts. Cups and cauldrons in gold and some silver; hand-mirrors, chains, enameled, jeweled, twisting with ornate La Tène ornament. Wooden chests overflow with objects captured, created, offered. Treasures up on treasures, and more weapons – fine, heirloom weapons. Baskets of coin gleam on the floor, some so old that the basket-weavings are disintegrating and the treasures spill onto the earthen floor, where they are slowly sinking in to the soil under the weight of layers up on layers of offerings. Humbler offerings litter the floor, too: ceramic and earthenware cups, fragmented crockery, bronze and iron tools, objects too old to be recognizable. How deep have the layered offerings sunk into the earth inside this treasure-house? It is never guarded except by the spirits. No one would ever think of stealing gifts already belonging to the Otherworld.

And here is another, smaller structure in the corner of the enclosure, glinting white by the moon’s light. Nearing, we discern that it takes its whiteness from the bones of which it is built, and the gleaming weapons hung upon it. A little square shrine built all of bones it is. Carefully stacked for stability, human long-bones criss-crossed make up its lower tiers; here and there intermixed with the leg-bones of horses. On its outer faces are hung more shields and weapons, and its upper surfaces are protected by a layer of shoulder-blade bones. An opening faces us, again toward the east, and within we can discern a floor carefully tiled with iliac bones, surrounding a round posthole in which stands a wooden icon with unfathomable staring eyes, its base set into deep, soft layers of human ash within the posthole. It is not simply a shrine for the ancestors of the tribe – it is a shrine built of ancestors, the bones of the honored dead raised up into a structure for their reverence. How many ancestors stand here? How many generations?

One artist's interpretation of a Gaulish sanctuary

One artist’s interpretation of a Gaulish sanctuary

In the remaining corner of the sanctuary enclosure, behind the sacrificial temple, there stands a copse of trees. A little piece of the forest that was cleared to build the dunum whose walls surround this sanctuary, this grove of trees was left untouched and simply enclosed by the boundary ditch and palisade. It is a home for the Gods within the sacred precinct of the sanctuary.

This is a Gaulish Celtic sanctuary as it might have looked while still in use, before the destruction of public Gaulish religion. I’ve combined elements of a few different sanctuaries for the sake of illustrating the different kinds of shrines that were in use, but almost everything I’ve described here is based on archaeological records, with just a few bits filled in from contemporary texts. These sanctuaries were in continuous use and development from about the 4th-5th centuries BCE until the eve of the Gallic wars. Why do we have such detail about the structure and arrangement of these sanctuaries? Because the Gauls of these tribes committed a kind of religious suicide before Caesar’s onslaught came.

During Caesar’s period in the middle of the first century BCE, these sanctuaries were abruptly closed. The hollow altars were filled in and covered over. The temples were dismantled – their walls collapsed inward to cover their contents. The ossuary shrine made of ancestral bones was carefully knocked outward from the inside, so gently that many of the bones remained locked together in their stacked patterns, and none were broken. Everything was leveled, including the palisade walls; the banks were knocked over to fill in the boundary ditches. And then the entire enclosure was covered over with a low mound of soil. This was not the destruction of war – the sanctuaries were intentionally and carefully dismantled, and all around the same time, mid-century. As the Druidic priesthood of Gaul saw what faced them in Caesar’s conquest, they chose to bury half a millennium of religious tradition literally into the grave rather than see it desecrated by the Roman legions.

I try to imagine what that must have been like. Some handful of individual Gaulish people did the physical labor of knocking down the ossuary temple built of twenty-five generations of their own ancestors’ bones, obliterating five hundred years of memory and tradition and worship, knocking them into the dirt as gently as possible and covering it over, never to be retrieved. And then what… walked away? Went for a beer? Joined Vercingetorix’s army? Drowned themselves in the river? That’s about the point where I give up trying to imagine what it must have been like to have to do that.

When Caesar came, he never saw the temples, because they were gone before he arrived. He wrote about Gaulish religion, of temples with sacrificial deposits in them, but scholars recognize his texts as copied from the earlier writer Poseidonius. What he saw he described as “constructed mounds” which he understood were made up of sacrificial deposits. The grave mounds of Gaulish religion.

It is from this period that the springs, caves, lakes, and other natural sites began to dominate as centers of cult activity in continental Celtic religion. It is from this period that we see a dramatic increase in votive icons and offerings, magical tablets, and other religious items appearing as the evidence of folk religion. Because after the destruction of the temples and the criminalization of Druidic religion and its public rites, private worship in the hidden places of nature was what the Gauls had left to them.

The Gauls did not forget, though. After the Roman conquest, even following the official prohibition on Druidic religious activity, the sanctuaries continued to be kept as sacred ground. While the dunums were built up into Roman oppida all around, the grounds on which the sanctuaries stood were kept empty. No longer visible as mounds, with no surviving structures traceable on the ground surface, the people somehow passed down a hidden tradition about the sacredness of these sites for four hundred years after the conquest, protecting the boundaries of the sanctuaries from the encroaching city. It was not until the fourth century CE that a new temple, now in the Romanized style, was built – and when it was, its corner posts were laid precisely onto the invisible footprint of the old Gaulish temple.

That is the story that the ghosts of Gaul asked me to tell you tonight.

Of blood and battlefields: Sacrifice in Pagan practice

So today I’m thinking about sacrifice again. It’s a subject that’s been showing up recently. Not long ago, my friend Sam wrote an excellent blog post on the subject of sacrifice; and the comment discussion on the post is very revealing of the fearful attitudes many people still hold toward the notion of sacrifice. You’ll find a commenter in that conversation blithely stating that he eats meat, but virulently objects to animal sacrifice as wanton murder, and seeing no contradiction in these two positions.

Not long after that, I traveled to a Pagan gathering in British Columbia, where as part of a series of intensive rituals working closely with Macha, an epiphany of the Morrígan in horse form, several of we Coru priests and our allies held a ritual feast of horse meat and other ancestral foods, cooked over a sacred fire and eaten within ritual. We experienced very mixed responses to this ritual. Some of those present were moved and honored to participate; others who heard about it after the fact reacted with horror to the idea that we would ritually consume horse meat.

The common theme expressed by those who object to blood sacrifice seems to be the idea that it demeans or insults the being that is sacrificed. That to spill blood for a religious offering is to waste life, when something else could be offered. I think this is arising from a misunderstanding of the nature of sacrifice; and I encourage readers to go and read the entirety of Sam’s article on the subject. We should know, of course, that the term sacrifice means ‘to make sacred’; and that sacrifice is, historically speaking, a core practice of Pagan religions in the ancient world. I’ve written on this subject before, as have many others.

This week, I’ve just returned from a weekend of  armored combat and ritual offerings to my Gods. As part of our martial and devotional practice, when I and the other Coru priests and warriors attend large war events, we lead battlefield devotionals to bless the fighters and the field, and to dedicate the combat to our battle Goddess, the Morrígan. As this practice has developed, it became clear to us that blood offerings were needed. In the past, every time we performed the battlefield dedication without offering blood, at some point in the fighting day one of us who had been involved in the dedication would take an injury, and blood would flow.

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Coru priests and allies performing Gaulish battlefield dedication

This tells me something important about how this devotional process operates with the Morrígan. How many times have people told me that libations, food, flowers, whatever, are sacrifice enough for the Gods? How many times have I heard that offering your time, dedicating acts of service to the Gods, time spent in devotional prayer is just as good a sacrifice? Well, we did all that, and She asked for more. Rather, She took more. We offered beer, whiskey, cream, woad, etc.; we brought Her many fighters to raise their voices with us and dedicate their fighting in Her name; we gave Her the battlefield, and we threw our bodies into the fray; we offered Her our many bruises and every ounce of fight we had in us. She took all that, and then She took blood, too.

Until this time. We got wise and added a sacrifice ceremony the night before the fighting, in which we made blood offerings which were placed into the cup with the offerings that would be dedicated and poured out on the field the next morning. Several Coru priests, as well as some of the other warriors gathered, chose to offer their blood. And this time, none of us took a bleeding injury during the fighting. I can only conclude from this that She requires blood sacrifice in the context of a battle dedication.

This should not surprise us, really. We know that it was a common practice among the warrior traditions of the Gaulish Celts to offer dedications to their war Gods prior to a battle, and we know that human and animal sacrifices were among those offerings. It stands to reason, and I think has been shown, that these Gods (or at the very least our Goddess) still expect some kind of blood sacrifice. Modern Pagans love to talk about how the Gods evolve with us, and how forms of offerings can be different in modern times. I agree – but I think the important thing that has shifted isn’t whether or not living sacrifice is needed or useful. What has shifted is the importance of the individual soul and the idea of consent, the willing sacrifice. Everyone whose blood went into that cup offered it of their own volition. Similarly, when we organized the blood donation drive at PantheaCon last year, that was a form of sacrifice which was purely volitional. That focus on volition with regard to human offerings is reflective of how sacrifice can evolve in a modern context – a religious practice now shaped by modern values on individual liberty, but still preserving the core function of the act, which is the offering of vital life.

That core function is also present in animal sacrifice and is the reason why the practice is still relevant today. Obviously, consent cannot work the same way with animal offerings as it can with human blood offerings. But it seems to me that we don’t expect to receive consent from the domestic animals who are raised and slaughtered for our food, so it is an unreasonable standard to apply to religious sacrifice. To my mind, if we’re willing to kill to eat (and I think all beings have a moral right to kill when needed for sustenance or self-defense), there is no reason to be squeamish about dedicating the life force that’s being spilled in a religious fashion. From a Pagan perspective, an animal that’s being killed humanely and with attentive care in a ritual context is being honored far better than one that’s being killed as part of a routine assembly line, packaged for food without attention to its soul process and the spiritual quality of its death. Thus, unless it comes from a person who eats no meat nor otherwise supports animal processing industries, I can’t give much credence to categorical objections to animal sacrifice.

There’s another argument about consuming animals based on totemic links, and this was part of the objection to the horse meat that we heard. Reflections of this exist in history and mythology of Pagan cultures – as one well-known example, the Irish hero Cú Chulainn had a geis which prohibited him from eating dog meat, and this is usually interpreted as resulting from his totemic connection to dogs. This is a valid spiritual argument, but it still only holds for those individuals who have a specific relationship with the animal that would confer such a prohibition. Others’ relationship with horses doesn’t preclude me from participating in ritual horse meat consumption, any more than Cú Chulainn’s geis means no one in the world should ever eat dog.

There’s much more to be said about this subject. We’re hopeful of organizing a discussion on the subject of sacrifice at PantheaCon next year (spearheaded by my sister Coru priestess Rynn Fox). I hope the conversation on sacrifice continues, because I think it’s a very important one in the evolution of Pagan thought.

Helvetios

My friends have asked me to write about my epic moment with Eluveitie, so here we go.

Eluveitie, for those who aren’t familiar, is a Celtic folk metal band out of Switzerland. But here’s the thing about them: they aren’t just a metal band, they are a Celtophilic cultural phenomenon. The music fuses traditional Celtic folk instruments (uillean pipes, fiddles, flutes, hurdy-gurdy, bodhran) with powerful metal grooves. Songs are written in a mix of ancient Gaulish and English – some of them including actual ancient Gaulish magickal, religious, and poetic texts set to their own music.

Naturally, as you can probably guess, I’m a mad fangirl. Epic folk metal music in the ancient Celtic mother tongue? Seriously, it doesn’t get more bad-ass than that.

During their recent North American tour, they ran a contest to give one winner at each city the chance to meet the band and get a music lesson from a bandmember on the instrument of their choice. Amazingly, even though I don’t play an instrument, I was selected for the Oakland show. In my contest entry, I wrote, “Would love to talk to songwriters about the Gaulish poetry used in your songs, as well as the history behind the Helvetios album.”

So on November 30th, I walked backstage before the show with Chrigel Glanzmann, the lead singer and lyric-writer, along with my stepdaughter and Brennos, a fellow Coru priest. Chrigel was courteous and kindly with my million questions about his songwriting, resources for Gaulish language and history, ancient Celtic magickal and religious practice, the Gallic wars, and cultural survival.

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Meeting with Chrigel before the show

We spoke of the destruction of Gaul following Roman subjugation. The massive bloodshed – which I’ve written of here before: the Celtic homeland was depopulated to a third of its original population size by Caesar’s sword. We spoke of the cultural loss that followed. Many of my questions related to ancient Celtic cult practice, the nature of Gaulish religion and magickal practice. He looked at me bemused when I told him I was attempting to revive aspects of Gaulish religious practice. “But it’s not possible… the religion was not documented before it was destroyed,” he said (in paraphrase – the interview was a month ago). “There is very little that we know.” I warranted that I did in fact have little to go on, but was doing my best. I sensed that it was a bit of a pleasant surprise to him to meet with a fan as devoted to Gaulish culture and language as myself. At the end of the interview, he said, “I’m glad people are trying to bring back the language and the culture.”

For Chrigel and the band, this is not just a metal music project, but a celebration of their own ancestral heritage. He and several bandmembers hail from Switzerland, from the Alpine plateau and foothill territory that was once the tribal lands of the Helvetii, a powerful Celtic tribe. He spoke eloquently in his accented English about the Helvetii and other Celtic tribes as the ancestors of the Swiss people, for whom the country in its native tongue is named: Confœderatio Helvetica. That although the Gaulish language died 1500 years ago, he feels a dedication to keeping it alive in music, as a poetic language and a vehicle for the memory of a people. He spoke of cultural survival — that although the Celtic roots of Swiss culture have been obscured by more recent Germanic influences from the early modern period, the Celtic bones remain within the culture.

He cited some fascinating examples of this from Swiss folk culture – much of what was recorded in the medieval and Enlightenment period as local charms and superstitions were in fact the remnant of ancient Celtic religio-magickal practice, translated through the centuries in the underlayers of folk culture beneath Roman and Christian overculture. The most fascinating example he gave was alpsäge, ‘alp-blessing’. This was a practice of the Gaulish tribal religion whereby magickal incantations were sung from high places in the mountainous Alpine landscape, for blessing and protection of cattle and other important tribal resources. The incantations were sung from heights in order to carry across distances and to generate echoes from the mountains, which were understood as the voice of the land spirits responding in support of the incantation. Beautiful, no? This practice has translated into modern times as…. you guessed it, yodeling. Chrigel speculated that before yodeling lost its soul, when it was practiced as a form of magickal incantation, it must have sounded quite different and more melodic.

After the interview, I felt a mixture of sadness and joy. The conversation reminded me of how much was lost following the ethnocide in Gaul. How little remains to us of the mother culture and mother tongue of the Celtic peoples. And yet…

Come the night, when the crowd roared and Eluveitie took the stage. When the mad, fierce, raging joy poured out of the musicians and swept through the crowd, churning the sea of people into a frenzy of violent celebration in the mosh pit. When the impassioned, screaming songs were sung out in the ancient language. Songs full of raw, deep emotion, telling the story of the Gallic wars and the nation that was, with joy, with pride, with rage, with anguish, with heart, the sounds of Celtic instruments swelling on a thunderous tide of metal. Songs of all that was lost, yet I could not help feeling how alive we were, how full of pride, how the flame of the Celtic spirit blazed in us in answer to the power in that music. Come the night, I felt the lost nation of Gaul singing through her descendants on the stage, echoing back from the ecstatic crowd. Everything lost is found again.

I don’t have video from our show, but here’s Eluveitie playing “Helvetios” and “Luxtos” live in Switzerland, March 2012.

Votum Solvit

Lately I’ve been hearing statements like this one: You don’t make a deal with the Morrigan. Or, similarly: Bargaining is for demons, not Gods.

There seems to be a belief out there that because the Gods are mighty and powerful, we can’t or shouldn’t attempt to negotiate with them. That when we have something to ask of them we are supplicants, and must accept whatever unknown thing may be asked of us later in the relationship. This view has been articulated a couple of times recently by one of the bloggers I read, Druid John Beckett. But I’m not picking on John; I’ve seen this expressed elsewhere and frequently, which is why I’m addressing it today. In particular with regard to the Morrigan, the perception seems to be that She’s a scary, powerful, terrible Goddess and so it is unwise to negotiate: the advice is to ask, and ask nicely, and hope She doesn’t demand anything too painful in return.

I respect John, but I’m here to offer another view. I am here to tell you that you can, and you should, negotiate with the Morrigan. It’s absolutely because She’s as powerful and as demanding as She is, that you should be 100% on your toes about cutting a deal with Her. Yes, She must be approached with respect. Yes, if She wants something from you, She’ll have it one way or another. That’s exactly why you MUST negotiate for terms that are safe for you and support your needs.

It is true that the Gods have powers we do not; the relationship is inherently one of unequal power. We do often relate to them as devoted servants. But this is a crucial point: We are not slaves without agency or will of our own in the relationship. When we enter into a devotional relationship with a God, it is an act of choice on our part: we are entering service as an act of devoted will. Your devotion is coin – it is empowered surrender, of the same kind that we offer a lover when we surrender to their embrace. Any relationship has terms that are negotiated, however subtly. When that relationship is with a being of greater power and insight than you, all the more necessary to be utterly articulate about what is being offered and what is expected.

Let us remember that the Morrigan is, above and primal to everything else that She is, a Goddess of Sovereignty. To accept an unnamed and unspecified obligation is to cede a bit of our sovereignty. Would the Lady of Sovereignty wish for you to give yours away without setting a price on it? Would She respect you if you did, even to Her?

Friends, the moment when She asks you to surrender to Her is the moment when She is testing your sovereignty. Your willingness to treasure it, defend it, obligate it only in exchange for what is truly worthy of it. Yes, you bloody well do make a deal with the Morrigan. Please tell me you will, if you deal with Her at all.

Those who know me might say of me that I’m hardly one to talk on setting a price for surrender to the Goddess. I’ve formally and by oath dedicated my life and being to the Morrigan; She holds my life and my death. It’s true: When I took that oath, I didn’t hold anything back. But did I negotiate my terms ahead of that oath? Hell yes I did. I made my needs very clear to Her, and they were not trivial things. I didn’t kneel and ask. I stood and set terms. She blessed my terms, held me to Her and told me I and my kin would be under Her protection. Then I knelt and gave Her my gift of loyalty and surrender. She is a Queen, after all. The dignity of fealty is something She understands.

The practice of making deals with the Gods goes right back to ancient times. Ever heard of a votive candle? The term ‘votive’ means pertaining to a vow or dedication (votum). Ancient Pagans throughout the Mediterranean and Celtic worlds were in the habit of making little deals with their Gods all the time. Help me with this thing I need, and I will offer you some extra act of devotion. Help me win this battle, carry this child to birth safely, survive this illness, succeed in this business venture. I will donate this money to your temple, light this candle for you, offer you this period of service, build this shrine for you. We know this because it was common practice to commemorate these vows in physical dedications and inscriptions, and innumerable votive artifacts remain. One of the most common forms of devotional offering in thanks for help expected or received was the votive offering, or ex-voto. A special plaque, altar, vase, jewel, or other devotional object would be purchased or commissioned, and given to a temple or shrine, with a dedication inscribed, such as: “Ex voto suscepto …”, “From the vow made by [the dedicator]”. We can assume that there would have been many forms of votive dedication which did not leave physical evidence, such as acts of service and devotion undertaken in payment of a vow where a commemorative inscription was never used.

Here is a beautiful thing: A record of the devotion of a Gaulish woman, from the era of Roman Gaul, after the conquest.

Votive altar dedicated to Cathubodua

The inscription on the altar reads, “Cathuboduae Aug Servilia Terentia V S L M“. Cathubodua is a Gaulish deity name which translates ‘Battle Raven’ (or Crow). ‘Aug‘ is a shorthand of ‘augustae‘, an honorific. The formula ‘V S L M’ represents a votive convention for the fulfillment of a vow, “votum solvit libens merito“. Translated, the inscription reads, “To the August Cathubodua, Servilia Terentia paid her vow, willingly and deservedly.”

Votum solvit libens merito. A story unfolds. This was a woman, Servilia Terentia, who lived, who spoke to the Gods. Who made a vow to Cathubodua, and in fulfillment of her vow, she had this stone altar commissioned, inscribed, and dedicated. She was a Roman citizen with a dual Latin name who had enough means to pay for an altar to be built, but who worshiped a Celtic Goddess. Servilia Terentia made a deal with the Battle Raven. Why? We don’t know, but she fulfilled her vow. Willingly and deservedly, the inscription tells us. Servilia Terentia felt her devotion was merited and repaid.

Votum solvit libens merito. This is devotion. This is what devotion means, quite literally: The word derives from ‘votum‘, a vow. Devotion, both as term and as concept, traces its origin to this ancient understanding of reciprocity, the exchange of offerings, acts of kinship that established the bonds of loyalty and mutual support between humans and Gods. We have always made deals with the Gods. Do not be afraid to state your terms.

The Shield-Wall

For months now, I’ve been focusing obsessively on the history of the Celts in Gaul and Britain: their ancient dominion, conflict, conquest and eventual subjugation by the Roman Empire. In part, it’s a personal quest to understand a period, culture and language that fascinates me. I’m seeking detail for a sensed personal history there; past life, perhaps, or ancestral memory. The sound and rhythm of the Gaulish language, the look of dress and weapons, place names, votive inscriptions – they stir something in me. I follow the stirring.

This obsession of mine is also a contemplation of disaster. I’m drawn over and over again to the accounts of battles lost, uprisings crushed, tribes decimated and destroyed by the inexorable tread of imperial conquest. Why this restless recycling of dead stories, dead languages, dead histories? Why this focus on the past, I’ve been asked by friends. Instinct, I answer. Something haunts me. I sense a crucial lesson buried in these histories; something that matters very much for our time, something we need to learn from the destruction of Gaul.

What are the lessons of Gaul? I’m still piecing it together, but I can’t escape certain glaring parallels with the struggles of our time. It has seemed to me that we are seeing a conflict within our civilization where the survival, integrity, and sovereignty of the common people are under attack by a ruling elite. This ruling elite – a class of wealthy plutocrats who control the machines of war, the halls of governance, and the mechanisms of finance and industry – maintains its position through subjugating, pacifying, and exploiting populations across ethnic and national boundaries, while extracting their wealth and concentrating it in trans-national centers of hegemony. Does this not sound familiar? It’s no secret that the ruling elites look to Rome as their model for a powerful and successful civilization. Why? Because the Romans won. The great Celtic homeland of Gaul with its fierce, indomitable tribes was brought to its knees. At the end of the Gallic Wars, it is estimated that the population of Gaul was reduced to one-third of what it had been. Whole tribes of thousands of human beings were destroyed, slaughtered or sold into slavery in other parts of the empire, while the legendary gold and agrarian wealth of Gaul flowed into Rome. Those who remained were quickly Romanized, their tribal systems dissolved and re-organized into the Roman system of social order. The Gaulish language and its neighboring Celtic tongues died out within a few centuries.

I am no scholar of history, nor a military tactician. But here is what I see, so far. The story of Gaul is in part a story about tribal sovereignty versus the hegemony of empire. This, I sense, hinges on identity. Our Celtic ancestors held tribal identity above nationhood – the unit of kinship and ethnic identity was the tribe, not the Celtic nation. Thus we see tribes fighting each other at times when standing together might have allowed them to better resist the crush of empire. We see tribes refusing opportunities to collectivize and protect another tribe’s lands, because the locus of sovereignty was the tribal lands of one’s own kin. We see tribes forming temporary alliances with the forces of empire, maneuvering for advantage against other Celtic peoples as they had done for centuries; while from our hindsight perspective we can see how these alliances invited the march of empire into their lands.

These apparently self-defeating moves were driven, I think, by the fundamentally tribal nature of Celtic identity. They did not seem to conceive of the notion of a national identity, at least not in the way that the Romans legions did, where personal ties, kinship, and tribe were all dissolved into an allegiance and identity within the state. This difference of identity seems to pervade every aspect of the conflict between Gaul and Rome. I think it was our undoing. They say that the advantage of the Romans, which allowed them to prevail in battle after battle, was their uniformity in action on the battlefield. Celts were known for their passion, their bravery, their ferocity; they could strike terror into an enemy from their fierce, mad, seemingly fearless rush into battle. Their approach to warfare was characterized by individual honor and bravado, by contests of champions, by a fearless personal devotion to winning honor or a glorious death. Romans were known for their uniformity in training, their consistency, their ability to operate under strict discipline. They were known for the effectiveness of their shield-walls, the strength of which depends on every man holding the line, every man holding together as one creature. The technology of warfare.

So I’ve been contemplating the shield-wall, as a symbol of empire, and perhaps a key to the lessons of the period. It seems to encapsulate the characteristics of hegemonic empire that were our downfall. I note that in the earlier period of Celtic expansion and dominion in Europe, there were conflicts with Rome – and in most of these, the Celts dominated. In fact, they overran and looted Rome, and this early sacking of their city engendered the grudge that lent fuel and vitriol to the Roman drive to conquer the Gaulish tribes. What was different in the early period, and why did the Celts prevail then as they could not in later years? I don’t know, but I suspect the answer is tied up with the evolution of Rome from tribal city-state to Republic to empire. In those later years they had perfected warfare as an institutionalized function of a hegemonic state, and the individualized, honor-driven tribal warriorship of the Gauls could not stand against the shield-wall.

We face something like this in the present time, don’t we? People who wish to stand up for individual rights, for civil liberties, for freedom and justice, for the sacredness of personal sovereignty – we face the shield-wall. The forces of empire have increasing control of the guns, armies, tanks, police forces, communications systems, financial systems, surveillance systems. These mechanisms of control are held tightly together against protest and counter-action, like the shields locked into the shield-wall. How to break through or escape? How to face this overwhelming force?

I don’t have this answer yet either, but the question has been haunting me more and more. Two nights ago, the Morrigan spoke to me again in a dream, and She said, “It is time to resist.” How? I ask, again and again. How?

The only clue She gave me was an image. A tribal group, feet painted blue with woad, like the Picts are said to have done.

The Picts, and the other tribes of northern Britain, were among the few Celtic groups who were never conqured, never subjugated by the Roman empire. Again, I don’t claim to be a historian, but it’s my impression that the Pictish and Caledonian tribes didn’t survive by prevailing against the shield-wall. Open-field conflicts between massed armies were relatively few in the northern British campaigns. The northern tribes survived by fighting guerilla-style; by taking advantage of their treacherous, mountainous terrain; by picking off targets of opportunity, by making it impossible for the Romans to ever decisively destroy them. At the end of decades of tribal guerilla warfare, the Romans finally decided the cost to subjugate these savage folk was too great, and they built a wall to protect the territory they had taken, and backed off behind it.

Is this perhaps the lesson of Gaul? Don’t meet the shield-wall. Resist fluidly, subtly, invisibly, so you can never be decisively beaten. Disappear and reappear, take them unaware, erode their will to subjugate you. By contrast, I think of Alesia, and the final decisive battles in Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. Vercingetorix had managed finally to gather almost all of the tribes of Gaul into a mighty army of the Celtic nation – perhaps the only time in history this was ever done. And he met Caesar on the battlefield, on Roman terms – army to army, shield-walls and siege machines, at the walled city of Alesia. The Romans employed their technological advantages to perfection and utterly destroyed the Celtic national army that vastly outnumbered them.

I can’t help wondering if the lesson here isn’t that we cannot win by adopting the form, tactics, and identity of our adversary. That our very strength is that tribalism, that unshakeable personal sovereignty and kinship identity. That we should never have tried to become a great national force like that of empire, because in attempting to remold ourselves into what we are not, we give away our power, and our sovereignty, the very thing we seek to protect. We cannot resist empire by becoming it.

Still contemplating this, I turn to you, readers. “It is time to resist,”said the Queen. How?