In the Iron Age, the greatest distinction in Celtic society was between the free and the unfree.
Freemen owned the best farms and had access to good pastures; their children, primarily males, inherited it. At home was the major portion of the population: women, children, the elderly and slaves. Some freemen became wealthy and competed to obtain luxury goods to prove their high status and reward their household men. These warriors were bound to their chief or king by the fighting, drinking, and feasting ceremonies. The elite warrior class did not farm or perform manual labour; they were free to roam, hunt and fight ritual combats. And feast of course.
The Romans had conquered Gaul in the first century BC and considered conquering another Celtic land–Britain. Conquest was justified because non-Romans were barbaric and in serious need of civilisation.
Classical writers provided snippets of Celtic life, coloured more than a bit by their disdain for non-Romans. In the 4thcentury AD, Ammianus wrote that the Gauls were tall, fair and ruddy, terrible for the fierceness of their eyes, fond of quarrelling and overbearing insolence.
‘When several dine together, they sit in a circle; but the mightiest among them, distinguished above the others for skill in war, family connections or wealth, sits in the middle like a chorus leader. Beside him is the host and next on either side the others according to their respective ranks. Men-at-arms, carrying oblong shields, stand close behind them while their bodyguards, seated in a circle directly opposite, share in the feast like their master.’
‘On whatever pretext you stir them up, you will have them ready to face danger, even if they have nothing on their side but their own strength and courage. To the frankness and high-spiritedness of their temperament must be added the traits of childish boastfulness and love of decoration. They wear ornaments of gold, torcs on their necks and bracelets on their arms and wrists, while people of high rank wear dyed garments besprinkled with gold. It is this variety which makes them unbearable in victory and so completely downcast in defeat.’
Beowulf & Celts
Although a Germanic epic poem, Beowulf (10th century), gives a good description of the drinking rituals of northern Europe in this period. The scene in the feasting hall describes the ceremony involving the distribution of alcohol.
Among the warriors, laughter rang out
Words were joyful. Wealhtheow went forth,
Hrothgar’s queen, mindful of noble usage,
Gold-adorned, she greeted the men in the hall.
And then the gracious woman offered the cup
First to the East-Danes’ king, the guardian of their land
In the feast and formal cup, fully victorious king.
Her steps led here and there, the lady of the Helmings
To veterans and youths, to each group of them,
She offered from the precious vessel.
Until the moment came
When to Beowulf, the ring-adorned queen,
Of excellent spirit, brought the precious mead cup.
And he chanted his eagerness to fight
For I had this one resolve in mind when I put to sea.
I embarked on the longship with my band of men
I would accomplish or perish in the fight.
Gripped in combat by enemies, I must perform
Heroic deeds or else my last day
In this mead-hall must meet.
The queen gave out mead according to the warriors’ status and heroism. Then they swore oaths about future deeds which they would perform or die. Their words are part of a ritual before battle, not boasting. Celtic custom influenced Beowulf(Enright 1996: 195-200).
The Celts were also said to ‘boast’ of their exploits in their chief’s or king’s hall. They would swear oaths about what they would do in battle at a ritualised feast—they were not boasting. If successful, they improved their status and received gifts of weapons, armour, jewellery and clothing. More importantly, they received ‘the hero’s portion’ of meat in public view of the chief or king’s household. The host directed his carver to give out portions of meat to a warrior according to his status and prowess in battle, but any warrior could revise his status by single combat.
The Hero’s Portion
Strabo described the hero’s share:
‘And in former times when the hindquarters of the [roasted] animal were served up, the bravest hero took the thigh piece, and if another man claimed it, they stood up and fought in single combat to death…’
Scéla Mucce Meic Dathó (The Story of MacDatho’s Pig) is a late version of the hero’s portion in Old Gaelic. It’s a bit over the top and may have been written to parody the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the great Gaelic epic. But the story’s motifs are ancient, and the tone is undeniably heroic.
At length, one man triumphed over all Ériu [Ireland]: Cet, son of Mágu from Connachta. He hung his weapons over those of everyone else; then he took knife in hand and sat down to the pig, saying, ‘Find among the men of Ériu one to match me in feats–otherwise I will carve the pig.’ Inasmuch as his equal had not been found, the Ulaid [Ulstermen] fell silent.
Several men stood up to carve the pig, but they could not as Cet has bested them and their sons in combat.
Knife in hand, then, Cet was exulting over the pig when Conall Cernach entered the hostel. He leapt into the middle of the hall, and the Ulaid gave him a great welcome…
‘Is it true, Cet, that you are carving?’
Cet answered, ‘Welcome, Conall, heart of stone, angry ardour of the lynx, glitter of
ice, red strength of anger in the breast of a champion. Full of wounds, victorious in battle, you are my equal, son of Findchóem.’
Conall replied, ‘Welcome, Cet, son of Mágu, dwelling place of a hero, heart of ice, plumage of a swan, strong chariot-fighter, warlike sea, fierce beautiful bull, Cet son of Mágu. … ‘Now move away from the pig,’ said Conall. ‘I will meet you in single combat. I swear by what [the god] my people swear by. Since I first took spear in hand, there has not been a single day when I have not killed a Connacht warrior, not a single night when I have not destroyed with fire, and I have never slept without a Connacht head under my knee.’ (Gantz 1981: 183-7)
These passages provide a picture of controlled aristocratic violence. Fighting was glorious but limited to the elite. Those who served in the households of the powerful considered themselves extremely lucky. They had a wonderful view of the best entertainment of the day–watching their favourite celebrities live their lives–right in front of them. The lesser people, in turn, would be the centre of attention when they visited other villages and passed on the gossip about the elite.
The social system supported the warriors and provided opportunities for them to display prowess in combat. Warfare of this kind was about honour and status in direct contrast to conflict among Mediterranean peoples: Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans. For the latter, war was a means to protect trading interests and gain wealth and power to maintain their elites.
Alexander, Michael, ed., Beowulf, a Glossed Text, 1995
Jeffrey Gantz, ed., Early Irish Myths and Sagas, 1981
Michael J. Enright, Lady with a Mead Cup, 1996
Koch, John T. & John Carey, eds., The Celtic Heroic Age, 2001
Thurneysen, Rudolf, Scéla Mucce Meic Dathó, 1975