The World of Ancient, Celtic Ireland

As I researched the world of St. Patrick in AD 432 for my novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, I ran across many strange and interesting facts about ancient, Celtic Ireland. I present here a selection for your enjoyment.

Ancient Cutlery

Knives are some of most ancient tools, but forks are relative newcomers to the dinner table. Two-pronged forks were used in 8th century Iran, but they didn’t come into use in Europe until the 16th century. Even so, only the upper classes used them and then infrequently, as they were associated with the devil. Some considered use of the fork as effeminate. It wasn’t until the late 17th century that forks acquired a third or fourth tine. Spoons started as snail or sea shells and are among the most ancient of utensils.

Brain Surgery

Skulls retrieved from several sites show that druid physicians performed trephining operations—drilling circular holes in the skull. This procedure was supposed to relieve pressure due to head injuries, and maybe even psychological maladies. Sometimes the patient was trephined as many as three times.

Celtic Beginnings

The Celtic peoples arose suddenly in central Europe around 1,000 BC and spread quickly. Their iron weapons gave them a powerful advantage in warfare. The Celts still exist today in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and northern France

Chariots

The Romans were surprised to find the Celts using chariots in battle. They were unnerved by these two-wheeled carts pulled by a fast horse, sometimes with axle blades. Celtic iron-working had improved these wheeled war machines that the Romans’ ancestors had long since abandoned. Chariots allowed the Celts to go quickly into and out of a fight. Combined with cavalry they could break through a Roman phalanx, making way for foot soldiers.

Dinner Plates

In the Middle Ages, meals were eaten off rounds of stale bread called trenchers. The diner piled cooked meat and vegetables onto the bread and he could lift the whole “plate” to his mouth. Knives and spoons handled what was left. When the meal was finished, you could even eat the now soggy plate.

Druids and the Soul

Druids were the Celtic intellectual class who passed their knowledge to their brothers orally. They were the intermediaries to the spirits and Celtic gods. They officiated over sacrifices and performed the roles of judge, healer, and diviner of the future. They were also philosophers who believed that after death, the soul does not die, but passes from one body to another

Fairy Trees

The Celts believed that oak, ash, and thorn trees held magical powers and were the abode of fairies. Even in today’s Ireland, one sees notes tied to certain trees, prayers or requests for the fairies.

Fairy Tree in County Connemara, Ireland

Fairies

Fairies, or the little people, include the leprechauns of myth. They supposedly had magical powers and were noted for mischief and malice. Leprechauns were linked to the Tuatha Dé Danann, the mythical ancestors of Ireland.

Human Sacrifice

That the druids practiced human sacrifice is documented by Roman and Greek travelers, though some modern historians discount these histories. Still, human sacrifice was the norm for ancient cultures, including Rome, itself. Archaeology supports the view that the ancient Irish sacrificed humans. Witness the cult of Crom Cruach in Killycluggin, where on the eve of every Samain, a child was sacrificed to the bloody sun god. Except for Crom Cruach worship, druids sacrificed only on rare occasions, and usually adults.

King Aengus’s Foot

Legend tells us Patrick baptized King Aengus at the Rock of Cashel in southern Munster around AD 450. But so preoccupied was Patrick with the ceremony that he speared the king’s foot with his crozier while baptizing him. But the king, thinking this was part of the rite, held his tongue until the end.

Passage Tombs

The ancestors of the druids built huge earthen passage tombs. The massive tomb at Newgrange, just north of Dublin, is dated to 3200 BC, older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. It’s 250 feet across and 40 feet high. On the winter solstice, the rising sun shoots a beam of light down a narrow passage and floods the tomb’s central chamber. Besides being used for burial, it would seem to have been used for a religious purpose having to do with the sun or sun god.

Pit Ovens

Holes dug in the earth served as pit ovens. Off to the side, a fire heated heavy, round stones. These superheated stones then lined the pit, over which the food was laid, followed by a flat stone and earth to trap the heat.

Treasure Caches

All across Ireland excavators have found Celtic caches buried in the ground containing gold and silver rings, bracelets, armbands, swords, and daggers.  These gold collars were found in just such a cache. (I took this shot at the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin.) Were they the collected treasures of Celtic nobility, buried in these makeshift stone vaults? Or were they hastily created storehouses of wealth, thrown together in the face of attack by opposing clans? We’ll never know.

Trial Marriages

When a Celtic woman married a man, she was given the option of living with him for a year. At the end of that time, if he treated her badly or she otherwise didn’t care for him, she could declare the marriage annulled, leave her husband’s clan, and return to her father’s clan.