Ancient Celebrations – Part 4 – Yuletide

Yule or Yuletide (Yule season) is an ancient festival observed by the Germanic peoples. It has connections to Woden (Odin) and sacrificial feasts. Like many other pagan festivities, Yule was Christianised and transformed into Christmastide. Despite this, Yule is still commonly used in Carols and in connection with Christmas, such as the Yule log.

How was this ancient festival celebrated, what was its meaning and how does it influence Christmas celebrations today?

The Norse All Father, Odin, also bears the names jólfaðr (Old Norse for “Yule father”) and jólnir (“the Yule one”). A link was later made to the French word jolif, meaning jolly, which was itself derived from Old Norse. It can also mean feast, as in hugins jól (Old Norse “Huginn’s Yule”), which referred to “a raven’s feast”.

The earliest written mention of Yule is from fourth century Gothic, in connection in the month that fell from November to January on the old lunisolar calendar. Yule was originally a 3-day celebration.

During Yule, farmers gathered at the heathen temple and brought along food for the feast. All drank ale and livestock, including horses, were sacrificed. The sacrificial blood (hlaut) from them was collected in vessels (hlautbolli), which was then smeared around the inside and outside of the temple with sacrificial twigs (aspergills). The blood was also sprinkled around the pedestals of the statue representations of gods and on all men present. The meat, however, was boiled and served as food at the banquet.

Fires were lit in the middle of the temple floor, and kettles hung over them. The chieftain blessed both the sacrificial meat and the sacrificial beaker, as he held it over the fire. Toasts were drunk to Odin “for victory and power to the king”, a second to Njörðr and Freyr “for good harvests and for peace”, and thirdly a beaker was to be drunk to the king himself. Toasts were then drunk to the memory of the departed.

King Haakon I of Norway who ruled from 934–961 is credited with the Christianisation of Norway. He also rescheduled the date of Yule to coincide with Christian celebrations held at a similar time. When Haakon arrived in Norway, he was already a confirmed Christian, but the land was completely heathen. Haakon hid his Christianity to ensure the support of tribal chieftains. Eventually, Haakon introduced a law ensuring Yule celebrations took place at the same time as Christmas. When he solidly established himself and held power over the whole country, he then had the gospel preached. His popularity caused many to be baptised, and some stopped making sacrifices.

Yule eventually became synonymous with Christmas, with the Yule Father being replaced with the jolly image of Santa Claus. Many modern pagans have since reclaimed Yule as their own and celebrate it with a mixture of ancient and modern traditions.

The Celts – Part 4 – British Migrants – Beaker Folk and the Celts

Prior to the Celts, the Beaker folk arrived in Britain around 2700-2500 BC, intermingling fairly peacefully with the existing Neolithic culture and adopting its henges. They brought new burial practices with them so that Neolithic long barrows or cairns were replaced by smaller barrows or tumuli. They also brought new metalworking techniques with them, in copper and gold. They came from a society that stretched across Europe (covering all of Iberia, most of Germany, and northern and southern France excluding the Central Massif).

The Beaker folk introduced a patriarchal society in which the individual warrior-chieftain became the most important and powerful figure, replacing the existing egalitarian society that built Stonehenge. They gained their name, which is sometimes given as Bell Beaker Folk, through their use of a large number of drinking cups called beakers. Burials with these pots alongside the dead have been used by archaeologists to chart the growth and expansion of the Beaker folk

Examples of Beaker Folk Pottery and Tools

Their arrival was not an invasion of new people, the Beaker folk were an influx of a new ruling elite in much the same way as later waves of Celtic arrivals. They were farmers and archers, wearing stone wrist guards to protect their arms from the sting of the bowstring. It was actually the Beakers who introduced the roundhouse, which echoed in shape both the henges and barrow mounds, made their own, distinctive, pottery, and produced the first woven garments in Britain. They also introduced the first known alcoholic drink, a form of honey based mead. They were emulated by the natives, so within a fairly short period everyone were Beaker folk, newcomers and natives alike.

The first wave of Celtic settlers in Britain arrived in the Late Bronze Age period, between 1500 BC at the earliest to around 1000 BC. Like the Beaker folk, they were peaceful settlers. These early Celtic arrivals were later the focus of what may have been a long-established tradition of  kingship that was claimed by the post-Roman Celtic peoples of Britain.

These early arrivals were rulers of the British Celtic tribes (starting initially in the south and east of Britain and working northwards). They were the strongest rulers of their own tribal groups and held at high-kingship over the rest. Their duty as high king was exercised to unite tribes in times of emergency, such as at the landings of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC. History shows that both kings and queens ruled over various tribes.

They would train with the warriors of their tribes and lead them into battle, but only to protect their tribes. The Celts were fierce warriors, but only as protectors of their tribes and the kingdom.

Ancient Celebrations – Part 3 – Hallowe’en

Halloween has been observed by many Christians since c.610 CE, and is a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve (Hallow meaning holy ones, or saints). This was followed by All Saints Day on 1 November and All Souls’ Day on 2 November. The three days are collectively known as Allhallowtide. They are a time for honouring the saints and praying for recently departed souls who have yet to reach heaven. Despite this though, Halloween has much older origins and many of the customs today, go back much farther into history.

Originally, All Saints Day was celebrated on 1 May. However, both the Celts and Germanic people commemorated the dead at the beginning of winter. So to make the festival appeal to pagans the date was aligned to Samhain from 1 November 835 CE at the behest of Pope Gregory IV. Samhain was the first and most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Gaelic calendar and was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. A kindred festival was celebrated by the Brittonic Celts, called Calan Gaeaf in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall and Kalan Goanv in Brittany, meaning “first day of winter”. Both Samhain and Calan Gaeaf are mentioned in the earliest Irish and Welsh literature.

Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year. It is seen as a liminal time, where the veil between the physical world and the Otherworld was lifted. This meant the Aes Sidhe, the Fae (spirits and fairies) could more easily visit this world and were active. The Aes Sidhe were ancient Celtic Gods, who were denigrated by the Christian church. Despite being replaced by other beliefs, the Aes Sidhe were both respected and feared. Known fairy dwellings (which still exist today) were approached with caution, with people praying for God’s protection. During Samhain, offerings of food and drink were left outside these dwellings, as an offering, to ensure that the Aes Sidhe protected both families and livestock during the bleak winter months.

Souls of the dead are believed to visit their former homes and places were set at the table to welcome them. In more recent centuries, household rituals and games were played intended to foretell one’s future, especially in regards to death and marriage. These included apple bobbing, nut roasting, scrying using objects such as crystals and mirrors, dream interpretation and others. Bonfires were lit, traditionally on the sacred hill of Tara in Ireland and then once the flames were seen other fires were lit. Flames, smoke and ashes were all seen as having protective and cleansing powers. Dressing in costume from door to door begging for appeasement goes back to the 16th century, but may have more ancient Celtic origins. It is believed that disguises and playing tricks helped hide you from malevolent spirits. The carved Jack O’Lantern pumpkin only dates from the 20th century and originally turnips or mangel wurzels were used. Today, Halloween is more popular than ever, celebrated by both Christians and pagans.

Traditional turnip Jack O’Lantern from the Museum of Country Life, Turlough, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Ireland

The Celtic Diet – Part 4 – Samhain Recipes

In recent times, common Celtic recipes are stews, potato dishes, cereal/oat meals and lots of varieties of bread. Some foods are eaten during celebratory or commemorative days. These are some recipes you might want to try for Samhain: –

Traditional Irish Colcannon


Colcannon was first referenced in Irish history in a 1735 diary entry of William Bulkely, a traveler from Wales who had the dish on Halloween night in Dublin: “Dined at Cos. Wm. Parry, and also supped there upon a shoulder of mutton roasted and what they call there Coel Callen, which is cabbage boiled, potatoes and parsnips, all this mixed together. They eat well enough, and is a Dish always had in this Kingdom on this night.”


  • 500g Starchy, floury potatoes (as opposed to new potato varieties)
  • 150g Parsnips (or spring onions, or leeks)
  • 100g White Cabbage (or Kale)
  • Pinch of salt
  • 10g butter


  1. Prepare your potatoes, by cutting them into small roast potato sizes. Traditionally they are unpeeled with any eyes, etc. removed and washed, but many do peel them (although this takes away a lot of the goodness).
  2. Chop your other vegetables coarsely (modern recipes tend to use spring onions or leeks, but the oldest recipes used parsnips).
  3. Boil a pan of water with a pinch of salt and add the vegetables together. Some boil the potatoes separately, but I feel the tastes blend better when cooked together.
  4. Cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes (test with a fork).
  5. Once cooked add butter and mash.
  6. Optionally some add little trinkets to the dish when served at Samhain.

Irish stew

Irish Stew

Ingredients (for 8 servings)

  • Tablespoon oil
  • 2 or 3 onions, chopped
  • 450g (1 lb) lamb stew meat (traditionally mutton)
  • 225g (1/2 lb) parsnips or carrots, sliced
  • 1.3kg (3 lb) potatoes, sliced
  • 500ml (17 fl oz) stock
  • salt and pepper to taste


  1. Prepare vegetables.
  2. Brown onions and meat in oil. Once browned, add parsnips or carrots (or a mix).
  3. Add remaining ingredients and bring to the boil, then cover, lower heat and simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
  4. For a modern twist and extra flavour add herbs such as basil and bay leaves

Barmbrack (an Irish fruit cake)



  • 3/4 cups (8.75oz/248g) raisins
  • 3/4 cups (8.75oz/248g) sultanas
  • Zest of lemon, large
  • Zest of orange, large
  • 1/3 cups (8oz/227g) dark brown sugar
  • 2 cups (16floz/500ml) black breakfast tea, hot and strong
  • 3 cups (15oz/426g) all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spice
  • 2 eggs , beaten


  1. In a medium bowl, combine the raisins, sultanas, zests, and sugar.
  2. Pour the hot tea over and stir to combine. Cover with cling wrap and allow to stand overnight at room temperature.
  3. Pre-heat the oven to 325°F (170°C). Lower the temperature in a fan oven. Grease a deep 9 Inch Cake Pan with butter/oil and line with greaseproof paper.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and spice.
  5. Stir in the fruit mixture followed by the eggs, alternating between the two. Mix until no dry streaks remain and the batter is well incorporated.
  6. Pour the batter into Cake pan.
  7. Bake for about 80-90 minutes, or until the cake is golden and springs back when pressed. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes, then turn it out onto the rack to cool completely.
  8. Slice and serve with butter.
  9. Store the Barmbrack at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

The Celtic Diet – Part 3 – Mead and Cyser

In recent years, there has been an increasing demand for Mead and Cyser (apple mead from South West England), ancient drinks enjoyed by the Celts. You might want to try making your own Mead and/or Cyser.


Bottled Mead

Instructions for Making Mead

Ingredients: –

  • Demijohn1 kg honey (different honey will make different mead)
  • 2 litres spring water
  • A spirit or wine thermometer
  • An airlock
  • Brewers yeast
  • Sterilising tablets (optional, honey is a natural steriliser, so some skip this as long as everything is cleaned in hot water)
  • Siphon
  • Funnel
  • 6 3/4 litre screw bottles (recycle)


  1. The honey is initially heated with 1 litre boiled water to 65 degrees C for 15 minutes (I found electric mark 3 was the best for maintaining this temperature).
  2. Pour into the demijohn using funnel.
  3. Add refrigerated spring water to the demijohn and then cool to 32 degrees C (put the demijohn in a bowl of ice)
  4. Once it has cooled add the yeast and a crushed sterilising tablet
  5. Seal the demijohn with a wine airlock
  6. Top airlock up with water and then cap the airlock
  7. Leave in a dark cupboard for 2 weeks
  8. Siphon into a pot, but leave the residue at the bottom
  9. Discard the residue and thoroughly clean the demijohn and then pour the mead back into the demijohn using the funnel
  10. Siphon after 1 week into bottles and then label the bottles and leave them for a minimum of 2 weeks before they are ready to drink (the longer you leave them the better the taste)


Cyser (Apple Mead)

Cyser is an ancient drink compromised of a mixture of mead and cider. This recipe produces a gallon of 14% Cyser.

Basically, in the recipe you are using the same amount of honey as in the mead recipe but replacing water with apple juice. Fresh press apple juice is best, but you can make a decent Cyser with any commercially available apple juice. You will need 1 litre of the original mix and then add 2 litres after you have heated the honey with 1 litre of apple juice.

Follow the same instructions as for mead, except replacing water with apple juice. Honey is a natural antiseptic, so sterilising tablets are not essential in either recipe. However, you need to ensure that your demijohn is absolutely clean.

Whether you make, or purchase Mead or Cyser, it is always wonderful to include it as part of your rituals, or after as part of a feast. Remember, for those who don’t partake of alcohol, ensure there are alternatives like apple juice or pure water.

The Celts drinking habits are mentioned by first century BC Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who states “their desire makes them drink it greedily, and when they become drunk they fall into a stupor or into a maniacal disposition”. The Celts were the original party animals! However, for your own good health, “try” and drink responsibly and enjoy the ancient beverages of your ancestors.

The Celtic Diet – Part 2 – Beverages

The rich Mediterranean imports found in early Celtic sites between the seventh and fifth century BC in Southwestern Germany, Switzerland and Eastern France provide evidence of the role of consumption practices in feasting. Imported ceramic vessels have been interpreted as an attempt by the Celtic elite to imitate Mediterranean wine feasting. In the Mediterranean imported plant oils and grape wine was identified and evidence points towards Celtic appropriation of Greek customs towards these foreign vessels. Both Greek and local wares served for drinking grape wine and other plant-based fermented beverages. A wide variety of animal and plant by-products (e.g. fats, oils, waxes, resin) were also identified. Honey and millet were also common in beverages in early Celtic drinking practices, such as mead and millet bear.

The study suggests the early Celts used both imported and locally made drinking vessels to drink Greek wine and local beer. Whilst beer was drunk by everyone, warriors drank millet beer while the elites drank ale made from barley or wheat and imported wine (which they later produced).

A.T. Lucas states ale and mead were common intoxicants from ancient times. However, alcohol wasn’t really that important to the ancient Celts. It grew in popularity and Ireland’s oldest pub, The Brazen Head, in Dublin dates to 1198. Whisky in Ireland and Scotland (Whiskey) only goes back to medieval times and was widely distilled from the 15th century onwards. The Irish immigrants in America took the recipe over with them. Irish law prohibits unlicensed private distillation of whiskey, but like the moonshine in America, poitin is often illegally brewed in the hills of rural Ireland. The ancient history of alcohol production and use in Ireland provides some insight into how alcohol may have developed such cultural significance in the Celtic world over time. However, ancient Celtic binge drinking did not involve alcohol, but milk.

According to Caesar, The Britons “live on milk and flesh” and this is borne out in Celtic mythology. For example, as a baby, Brigid drank the milk of a sacred cow that came from the spirit world. Her association with the sacred cow reflects the Celtic reliance on the animal for sustenance; milk was an important theme throughout the year, especially during the cold winter months when hardship threatened. Cian owned a magic cow whose abundant milk made everyone want to possess her. Our early ancestors were besotted by milk, they worshipped it and their daily life revolved around it. Cows provided hide, meat, currency, and milk.

The ability to digest into lactose in milk into adulthood in modern Europeans is the result of a genetic mutation (genome) and is largely absent in other cultures. As cattle and other livestock have been farmed in western Eurasia since long before, you would expect such a mutation to already be widespread by the Bronze Age. But DNA samples taken from this period, shows that it only existed in 10% of the population, which indicates that the widespread use of milk and dairy products like cheese, etc. gradually increased.

In ancient Ireland hospitality was a duty, and milk held huge significance in our ancient hospitality rites. To refuse a drink in ancient Ireland would cause great offence and considered a hostile and aggressive gesture. In modern times, it is the equivalent of refusing a cup of tea. Milk was later to become affiliated with the miracles of early Irish saints. St. Fechin of Fore, St. Bridgid, St. Ciaran of Saigher, St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise and St. Samthanne all performed miracles with milk.

The Celtic thirst knows no bounds and the Celts took to drinking tea with the same enthusiasm as they had for milk and alcohol. The Celtic love for liquids (whether it is tea, milk or alcohol) is engrained in our cultural fibre and identity.

When I was growing up, milk drinking was still encouraged to develop healthy bones and teeth and it is only in the last couple of decades that it has been link to high cholesterol. Full fat milk is now replaced by skimmed (basically coloured water) and semi-skimmed (which is a fair compromise).

Draíocht na Síoga na Samhna

Faerie Magick at Samhain

Lá agus Oíche

Leanaí ag súgradh

Amuigh sa ghairdín-

Déan deifir abhaile!

Tá an ghrian dula luí.

Sióga ag damhsa

Amuigh sa ghairdín-

Déan deifir abhaile!

Tá an ghrian ag éirí.

(“Oíche Mhaith” , Céim 1 Leabhar B, Duilleoga, An Comhlacht Oideachais Éireann.)

I circle the ancient stones clockwise from the portal to the axial mount, following the path of the sun. There I place my offering of milk and honey and I call to her…..

“An Ceann Sídhe, a Clíonadh naofa,

Banríon álainn na Múin agus na Shídhe, chuir do cluas orm.

Tugaim brontannas báinne agus míls duit mar mhalairt ar bhrontannas dom.

Go raibh maith agat banríon iontach as do bheannacht.”

Another method is to go to the Hawthorn and bring your supplication as the humble tree is also known as  the ‘Giving Tree of the Sídhe’. But to continue their blessings, a gift of milk and honey must be left outside the home each night or the pact is broken.

  Irish mythology has evolved over time where the old Gods become faerie type creatures and Megalithic and Neolithic sites as well as certain tree species have become their doorways between worlds. The various medieval texts have evolved their tales overtime as well. Samhain, the new year, is just around the corner and even the Fenian Cycle mentions Samhain on more than one occasion. Andrew posted a version of it with Fionn mac Cumhail’s rise to being leader of the Fianna and his famed deposing of an Dagda’s son at Tara during Samhain. Another is during the ‘Flight of the Lovers’, where Diarmuid and Gráinne flee the wrath of an aggrieved Fionn. It is mentioned that ‘the sídhe come from the other world for a friendly game of hurle every Samhain’. This time of year, mythology suggests is the best time for magick to occur (I’m still not sure where dancing around in the freezing moonlight without a stitch of clothing has come from).

There are two perspectives of magick. Psychological and supernatural. Which one it is up for you to decide, no one else. Both sides will agree that magick is the method of using one’s will as a catalyst to create an outcome desirable to the practitioner. Now this is my personal theory and has always been how I perceive and utilise. It’s what works for you in the end which counts.

A few years back, I managed to quit smoking for just under a year. It was hard at the start and I had to hand my wallet over to my partner so I couldn’t give into temptation. It worked after a month and continued, well, until a lot of things happened towards the end of that year and I was back on them again. I spent the last two years trying to give them up ( I was a pack a day person) and even used a service that is available at work (I work for the HSE) in which a nurse rang me everyday for encouragement and progress while sorting out nicotine replacement therapies. That was a waste of time for me as my personality doesn’t take too kindly to constant lectures and broken records. Also still having nicotine in my system doesn’t really make sense to me even if it’s a gradual decreasing of levels process. It has to be cold turkey full stop. Nicotine replacement therapy does work for some but not me.

In Ireland, the concept of the sídhe being faerie type beings only came about roughly about the time of the Ulster Plantations which also brought about the concept of witchcraft. There is a saying that goes back to that era, “To the protestants their witches and the catholics, their faeries”. I will touch on this another time. Sióga is a relatively modern Irish word which has been constructed from a marriage of ‘sídhe’ (too obvious to explain) and ‘óg’ (young). There is a name Séoige derived from it as well which I nickname my small one.

I am lucky that I travel to a sacred site regularly (when weather permits) at Knocknacoille in West Cork and also where I grew up, there are still many Hawthorn trees. One Sunday morning, my séoige was in the back of the car as we were travelling up to Knocknacoille, and she asked why did I smoke, did I have to and it makes me stinky. The usual. When we arrived, I finished off the pack before we walked up to the Stone Circle. Up at the site, I made a ‘pinky-promise’ with the séoige which was the physical reality ( in my minds eye it was the evocation of the Munster Goddess and her various evolved archetypical aspects as I wrote about at the start of the written piece). It was hard for the first few days especially at work in the hospital and I always had my wallet with me. My partner didn’t realise that I had stopped until she noted that I wasn’t smelling constantly of stale Marlboro’s after a week. She had questioned the small one but just got giggles and “Daddy and me have a secret so not telling!”. She was shocked that I had lasted so long without having a meltdown or entrusted her with my finances. It’s tough going. I still get the odd psychological craving (it takes 3 days for the body to clear out the nicotine so physical withdrawals occur then) but just look at the séoige and remember the pact.

I have benefitted greatly. I spend more quality time with the small one and now she’s like Daddy, cycling like a big person without stabilisers. I have attacked a new project where I am starting my leabhar draíocht anew by making it look like a medieval text as much as possible for my own taste (Andrew has seen the beginnings). It’s going to take a lot of time. I also registered for a charity cycle (120km Fort to Fort from Crosshaven to Whitegate and back or Cork harbour). I spent a lot of time training and completed it. It was hard and nearly gave up in Whitegate ( that is a very tough area of steep hills and lunar surfaced back roads and the event was nearly cancelled due to the high winds). But I just thought of that Sunday with the séoige up in Knocknacoille. I have found that my endurance had increased a good bit and I wasn’t stopping every half hour to have a smoke break. I finished the challenge with a good time of 4 and a half hours cycling time.

It’s at this point where I have to add that magick is only as strong as the effort that you put in and it only lasts as long as you keep up the effort. That is why I always think of our little pact when I look at my small one and just to be on the safe side, I leave a small offering of milk laced with a drop of honey outside by the flower bed every night. You just never know.

The last of the harvest is completed and they are beginning to prepare the memorial pyre of Tlaghta. The New Year is approaching and it is the time of the crossing of both worlds. Remember your loved ones and prepare a place by the hearth for them. Remember to have something special for the sídhe in their various guises. Enjoy the celebrations.

Arís eile, go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh an phíosa scríofa seo, agus beidh na beannachtaí Samhain oraibh.

Seán Ó Tuama.

A Tale for Samhain – Aillén the Burner

The 12th century text Macgnímartha Finn (Boyhood Deeds of Fionn) recounts the boyhood exploits of Fionn mac Cumhaill.

The story begins with the death of Cumhal, leader of the Fianna, at the hands of Goll mac Morna. Cumhal’s wife Muirne was pregnant at the time and eventually gave birth to their son, Demne. Fearing for his safety, she sends him to be raised by Cumhal’s sister, the druidess Bodhmall, and her companion Liath Luachra. The two warrior women raise him and accompany him on several adventures, including one in which he receives his nickname, Fionn (the fair; the pale).

He developed great wisdom after inadvertently tasting the salmon of wisdom which granted universal knowledge to whoever consumed it. The salmon, which dwelled in the pool of Fés, was coveted seven years by Finn’s mentor, the poet Finn Éces. Finn cooked the salmon, obeying his mentor’s instruction not to partake any of the salmon before serving it to him, but burnt his thumb while cooking and sucked it, thereby receiving its gift of wisdom. (Though it is not stated, it is inferred that this was a Salmon of Wisdom that ate the hazelnuts at the Well of Segais.)

Fionn travels to the capital of ancient Ireland, Tara, which for the last 23 years had been set aflame each Samhain by Aillén the Burner, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, often described as an evil goblin. Aillén played the harp and was known to sing beautiful songs. Aillén’s annual visitation to Tara was from an underwater, otherworld paradise realm inhabited by deities, from which few mortals were granted access, Mag Mell (Magh Meall – modern Irish), ruled over by Manannán mac Lir.

The ruler who had killed Fionn’s father, Goll mac Morna, and the Fianna are powerless to stop Aillén’s destruction since he puts everyone to sleep with a magical tune.

Fionn inhales poison from his own spear to prevent sleep, and laid in wait for Aillén to get near. As soon as the goblin was in striking distance, Fionn stabbed him with the spear, killing the goblin to the joy of many.

Fionn then reveals his true identity to the court, and the king grants Fionn his rightful position as leader of the Fianna. Goll steps down, and engages in a truce.

From that day forward, the event was celebrated with a huge Bonfire that acted as a beacon of hope atop the Hill of Tara. When the flames were seen other bonfires were lit, uniting ancient Ireland in it’s celebration of Samhain as a remembrance to its wise ruler, Fionn mac Cumhaill.

The Celts – Part 3 – The Vinča Connection

The Celts are not as ancient as many civilisations, but their cultural roots can possibly be traced all the way back to the Vinča culture in Serbia, who were sited along the river Danube (Belgrade modern day). The Danube basin was the site of some of the earliest human cultures and the Vinča culture goes all the way back to pre-history around 5700 BC. Why can we make the connection with the Celts?

Like the early Celts, they were are a very civilized culture. Agriculture, animal husbandry and hunting and foraging all contributed to the diet of the growing Vinča population. Compared to earlier cultures these practices were intense, with increasing expertise on high-yield cereal crops and with domesticated animals, consistent with the increased population density. They made greater use of barley than earlier cultures. These innovations increased crop yields and allowed the manufacture of clothes made from plant textiles as well as animal products (i.e. leather and wool).

There is evidence that Vinča farmers made use of the cattle-driven plough, which would have had a major effect on the amount of human labour required for agriculture as well as opening up new area of land for farming. Many of the largest Vinča sites occupy regions dominated by soil types that would have required ploughing.

Cattle were more important than sheep and goats in Vinča herds and, in comparison to the other cultures, livestock was increasingly kept for milk, leather and as working animals, rather than solely for meat. The Celts were noted for their drinking of milk (even up to recent times, especially in Ireland where it was sold in ale houses), much to the bemusement of the Romans, who considered milk a drink for children.

The Vinča subsistence economy still made use of wild food resources. The hunting of deer, boar and aurochs, fishing, fowling (still practiced in the fens of Eastern England and utilises feathers as well as the meat) and foraging of wild cereals, forest fruits and nuts, making up a significant part of the Vinča diet at some sites. Most settlements though were agricultural and wild resources were underexploited showing an advanced civilisation of farmers.

Some Vinča artefacts were made with considerable levels of technical skill. The Vinča site of Pločnik has produced the earliest example of copper tools in the world. Copper ores were mined on a large scale at sites like Rudna Glava, and mostly made into ornaments and trinkets rather than functional tools, which continued to be made from chipped stone, bone and antler. It is likely that the primary use of mined ores was in their powdered form, in the production of pottery or as bodily decoration.

However, the greatest link to the Celts is found in the Vinča pottery inscriptions.

Vinča pottery

Vinča pottery contains markings that correspond to Ogham symbols (named after the Celtic God of language and eloquence, Ogma). They also used the symbol of the sun cross, the sun represented by a circle with four rays emanating from the centre representing the four cardinal directions. The Celtic cross is the most widely used remnant of Celtic culture used today and is found in any graveyard in both Celtic and former Celtic nations. This was later used by the Christian church, who transferred worship of the Sun God to Jesus, preserving our pagan Celtic heritage.

Celtic Cross gravestone in Chagford Churchyard, Devon

Below are the markings found on Vinča pottery and underlined are the symbols that match stone markings found most commonly in Ireland, but also in areas of Scotland and Wales later inhabited by Irish Celts: –

So were the Vinča the ancestors of the Celts? We cannot say for certain, but the written language/ markings seems to fit in. The Celts were widespread over Northern Europe and came into contact with the Iberians from Northern Spain. The majority of recognised surviving Celtic nations today originate from Iberia and were Celtiberians, but many people in South Eastern European nations do have many Cultural similarities. And although records of the Celts go back to the 6th century BC we can see that their culture goes back to earlier civilisations going back over 7500 years.

Celtic Tribes in South East Europe 50 BC

The Celts – Part 2 – Alesia, the Mother City of Celtica

[4.19.1] Heracles, then, delivered over the kingdom of the Iberians to the noblest men among the natives and, on his part, took his army and passing into Celtica and traversing the length and breadth of it he put an end to the lawlessness and murdering of strangers to which the people had become addicted; and since a great multitude of men from every tribe flocked to his army of their own accord, he founded a great city which was named Alesia after the “wandering” (alê) on his campaign.

[4.19.2] But he also mingled among the citizens of the city many natives, and since these surpassed the others in multitude, it came to pass that the inhabitants as a whole were barbarized. The Celts up to the present time hold this city in honour, looking upon it as the hearth and mother-city of all Celtica. And for the entire period from the days of Heracles this city remained free and was never sacked until our own time; but at last Gaius Caesar, who had been pronounced a god because of the magnitude of his deeds, took it by storm and made it and the other Celts subjects of the Romans.”

Extract from LIBRARY OF HISTORY BOOK IV by Didodorus Siculus

The Greeks were so in awe of the Celts that they took credit for their creation. Greek demigod Heracles, or Hercules was not only closely linked to the Celts, but he was credited as being their physical father. The Greeks were a lot shorter in stature to the Celts, so the Greeks believed the Celts spring up from a giant among them.

The Tenth Labour of Heracles

According to Greek mythology, to accomplish his tenth labour, Hercules had to journey to the end of the world. Eurystheus ordered the hero to bring him the cattle of the monster Geryon. This creature had three heads and three sets of legs all joined at the waist. He lived on an island called Erythia, which was near the boundary of Europe and Libya.

Hercules and Geryon (ancient Greek vase)

On this island, Geryon kept a herd of red cattle guarded by Cerberus’s brother, Orthus, a two-headed hound, and the herdsman Eurytion. Hercules set off on for Erythia, encountering and promptly killing many wild beasts along the way, and he came to the place where Libya met Europe. Here, Hercules built two massive mountains, one in Europe and one in Libya, to commemorate his extensive journey. These mountains became known as the Gates or Pillars of Hercules. The strait Hercules made when he broke the mountain apart is now called the Strait of Gibraltar, between Spain and Morocco, the gateway from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Pillars of Hercules (land on right is Morocco, left is Gibraltar)

Sailing in a goblet which the Sun gave him, Hercules reached the island of Erythia. Not long after he arrived, Orthus, the two-headed dog, attacked Hercules, so Hercules bashed him with his club. Eurytion followed, with the same result.

Another herdsman in the area reported these events to Geryon. Just as Hercules was escaping with the cattle, Geryon attacked him. Hercules fought with him and shot him dead with his arrows.

When he carried away the oxen of Geryon, he visited the country of the Scythians. Once there, while asleep, his horses suddenly disappeared. When he woke and wandered about in search of them, he came into the country of Hylaea.

He then found Echidna in a cave. She was a monster, half-woman and half-snake and was the mate of the fearsome monster Typhon and was the mother of many of the most famous monsters of Greek myth. When he asked whether she knew anything about his horses, she answered, that they were in her own possession, but that she would not give them up, unless he would consent to stay with her for a time. Heracles accepted the request, and became by her the father of Celtos, Galatos and Iberus, the ancestors of the Celts, Galatians and Iberians.

The Battle of Alesia

Julius Caesar’s Seige of Alesia

The battle of Alesia in 52 BC that marked the defeat of the Gauls under Vercingetorix by the Romans under Julius Caesar corresponds with Diodorous’ description of a great Celtic city founded by Hercules. Caesar described the battle in detail in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Book VII, 69–90). The battle’s outcome determined the fate of all of Gaul: in winning the battle, the Romans won both the Gallic Wars and dominion over Gaul.

After being conquered by Caesar, Alesia became a Gallo-Roman town. It featured a town centre with monumental buildings such as temples, a theatre and a forum. The location of Alesia was unknown for many centuries until Emperor Napoleon III developed an interest in the location of this crucial battle in pre-French history. He was writing a biography of Caesar and saw the command of Vercingetorix over all Gaulish armies as a symbol of the French nation. At the same time he realized that the future French nation was heavily influenced by the Roman victory and centuries of rule over Gaul.

Napoleon III, First President of France 1848-52 and Emperor 1852-70

In 1838, a find with the inscription: IN ALISIIA, had been discovered near Alise Sainte-Reine in the department Côte-d’Or near Dijon. Napoleon ordered an archaeological excavation by Eugène Stoffel around Mont-Auxois. These excavations in 1861–65 concentrated on the vast Roman siege lines and indicated that the historical Alesia was indeed located there. It was protected by a wall enclosing the area, with at least two pincer gates and in 52 BC it possibly had a population of 80,000 including refugees and men under the command of Vercingetorix.

Later archaeological analysis at Alise-Sainte-Reine has corroborated the described siege in detail. The remains of siege rings said to match Caesar’s descriptions have been identified by archaeologists using aerial photography validating these findings and ending the long debate among archaeologists about the location of Alesia.