Celts Art And Identity
We went to this special exhibition at The British Museum London as it was in its closing days, finishing Sunday 31st. January. The last minute advance bookings were understandably selling out fast. Fortunately, we got a late morning booking and it was not too crowded.
The attempt of the exhibition, mainly sponsored by the Scottish Museum, was to attempt to bring some clarity to what we call Celts and Celtic today, how that 'identity' has happened, and how this has been interpreted during the last 6000 years through art and crafts.
My review here is quite wordy with few of my own pics as the museum staff were quite enforcing against the taking of photos. I managed to sneak a few pics with my iPad.
The exhibition started by explaining what was not 'Celtic' in ancient times to illustrate how broad we use that word today.
There was a flash upon Greek culture as being the ordered remains of science, maths and scribed literature passed along from the Babylonian Mesopotamia days. It showed the Greeks accelerating the elitism of the 'educated' and anyone outside of that was dumb-ass 'keltoi'
This quickly moved onto Rome absorbing the Greek culture and their heavier emphasis of calling any white caucasian people, the people of what is now mainly Eastern Europe, 'keltoi'. This word was an insulting dumbing down, much like white people calling black people 'niggers'.
By now, the exhibition was introducing us to some ancient items made by various 'keltoi' people, with most of the relics loaned from German and East Europe museums.
The Fear Of The Carnyx and Naked People
One of the fascinating displays was the dragon head relics and arts depicting the 'carnyx'.
This is a horn instrument with a long tube reaching upwards and a large fearsome dragon's head on the top.
It seems that in battle, the tallest people would be up front armed with swords, knives and shields, while the shorter people would carry and blow these 'carnyx' horns to add fear upon the people that were being attacked. The sound of a blown 'carnyx' is like a loud didgeridoo.
The picture this gives me, of the short people with these horns, at the rear of the taller people, is a wonder of if they turned their horns around from their mouths to get a more powerful wind blast, ... especially if the warriors were naked?
This has now caused me to wonder about warriors in story that have Cú in their names, such as Cú Chulainn, as similar horns have been uncovered in what is now Northern Ireland. Were the Cú people called that because their 'bark was the loudest', small people who could play the 'carnyx' the loudest and in the most fearful way?
Talking about naked warriors, which I briefly mentioned, here is a male example ...
Also, it seems that women equally fought against the Romans and similar ...
Keltoi, From Scum To Elite ...
The emphasis of this part of the exhibition was to compare how Roman culture was one that promoted the importance of stature through wealth and ownership. There was an emphasis on the human connection to 'things', The Latin language, in its construction, was emphasising this too. Meanwhile the 'keltoi' people were shown to be people that were connected more to the living experience, as nature provided.
What I found interesting interesting is how their later integration evolved. The so called 'keltoi' people learned to raise their prestige and position by including Roman items in their lives, especially by importing and serving Roman fruits, vegetables and wines, plus the pottery and metal vessels to serve them in.
One thing that seemed to always be important to 'keltoi' people was their feasting and how they hosted it.
Meanwhile, within the ever expanding and sprawling Roman Empire, people and communities within this sought ways to regain their local identities to show that they were not Rome. They did this by including 'keltoi' items and traditions in their lives.
There were various artefacts on display to show how these cultures merged in crafts and the arts upon them.
There was also a hint that these 'keltoi' people were the same people that would be the later Anglo Saxons of Britain.
Moving on to the Romans in England, and their encounter with the 'natives' there, we discover that they were not named 'keltoi', like the mainland Europeans, but honoured with different latin names according to their culture personalities. These tribal names included the Picti, Scotti, Hiberni etc. No reference even close to Celtic was used to describe these people at this time.
When The Pagan Saxons Arrived
The next part I found stunningly revealing. This presented what happened when the Roman legions left England. The Picti, Scotti, Hiberni, etc. were quick to try and reclaim their fertile ancient lands again but they were quickly moved back by invading Anglo Saxon tribes.
A difference was that Anglo Saxons were not obsessed with order, style, fashion and the trimmings of the Roman cultures. They had already rebelled and rejected all of that.
It does seem that Angles and Saxons were woodland and forest loving people, though this exhibition did not feature that much. It seems their forest connections and laws based on that were in conflict with the farming and rearing cultures of the people they had driven north and west.
Again, like 'keltoi' and Roman, it did not seem to take long for a sharing of cultures to happen and create local identities.
One of the exhibitions artifacts was a stunning cauldron full of very symbolic art. One of the reliefs fascinated me, a man with antlers holding a serpent in his left hand and a torq. a very valuable and prestigious item of gold jewellery in the other hand. Symbols of two different cultures and ways of living held by an image of wisdom?
Serpents for our life's path ...
and horses for our passing, with the goddess Epona not being far away ...
The biggest surprise to me was that the source of seasonal celebrations, rituals, and what we call 'pagan' and the 'old ways' today, was mainly introduced by the Angles, Saxons etc.
I had always believed that was so, privately, but knew it was cause conflict in debate as today's Celtic people are very protective of their interpretation of the 'old ways',
The Stealth Romans Who Created The 'Church'
The exhibition revealed that not all Romans went back to Rome, though. Some stayed on to take on leadership in establishing the 'church', an authority on establishing belief in a single mail gendered God and a Christian imagery of command and order.
St. Patrick is often said to be from a Roman family, but this does not mean coming from Rome. It means being from a family that was absorbed into the Roman culture, and developed an instinct for their culture of order.
St. Patrick of Ireland was not the first, though, but he and other 'teachers' and 'founders' established schools that taught scribing through duplicated languages. They established widely spoken and understood languages to replace family languages. They had a central gathering place which was the 'church' or 'abbey', and the people who attended these and were loyal to them became the collective monastic communities.
What surprised me was the suggestion that Gaelic languages were actually the creation of these monastic schools!
It was presented that this language started from using an ancient form of what we know as the Ogham alphabet, that the monastic scribes re-structured to create a duplicating language that could be scribed and shared with a common standardized interpretation.
A bigger surprise to me was the presentation claiming that during this earliest medieval Irish Christian Church foundation, the Celtic identity altered to being anything in Ireland, Scotland, Wales etc, that was linked to the scripture commanded monastic communities, and not of the 'pagan' Angles and Saxon culture, I use the word 'Celtic' in our modem interpretation, though, as it was unlikely that the Celtic word was not used yet, nor was 'keltoi'.
So, the biggest surprise to me was the suggestion that at this time the Celtic identity, though not named that, was actually a Christian identity. All that 'pagan' stuff that we strongly interpret at Celtic today was more the beliefs and ways of the Angles and Saxons.
Even so, a collaboration and sharing of cultures evolve as many Angles and Saxons joined the monastic colleges to learn their ways. This may well be why the ancient High Crosses combine Christian story art with their Germanic art and some of the ancient spiral art inherited from the Scotti, etc. people.
To digress a bit here. Despite the attempts of the monastic culture to unify Ireland through a belief system to create order, clan battles were frequent.
It was good to see a display of the magnificent silver case that contained 'The Cathach, The Psalter Of Columcille' that was an instrument for causing the 'Battle Of The Books' near Sligo and remained as a 'talisman' during battle by the descendants of the Northern O'Neills, the O'Donnells.
This case, and manuscript within, was restored by the British Museum and handed to the National Museum of Ireland, now back at the British Museum for this exhibition.
When Normans invaded Britain, then Ireland, Celtic Identity, though still not named 'Celtic', became anything that was not English or French. even though the Normans associated with the Church of Rome. The Normans were massive cathedral builders.
But in Ireland they were known for quickly leaving their Norman culture and becoming more Irish than the Irish. Eventually other Norman battalions stamped this out and the Roman church ordered major reforms of what has become the Irish Church.
What most of the 'Celtic Art And Identity exhibition strongly focused on, though, was the creation of the romantic identity of 'Celtic' and how the beauty of this has rising from its ugly ancient status as Keltoi.
The Celtic Revival Arrives
The Celtic identity relating to western Europe people seems to have been born with the invention and use of printing presses. The first printing presses were available from 1450 AD onwards.
The content published and distributed around Britain and Ireland by these late medieval printers founded a romantic and motivating retelling of the intimidating Roman descriptions about the 'Keltoi'.
The word 'Celtic' may not have been used in these printings for at least 0ver 100 years later. During 1582 there was a book printed called 'The History Of Scotland', by George Buchanan. This work included the first known mention of the 'Celtic' word, which was used to refer to Scottish and Irish people as being of a single identity.
Another misunderstanding is when many of us speak of the ancient stone circles, cairns and other megalithic structures as being 'Celtic'. In print, it was not until 1721 when an investigation report by William Stukeley referred to Avebury Stone Circle as being a 'Celtic Temple'. Stukeley even went on to mention that the 'Celtic Temple' was overseen by Druids.
The Avebury stone circle is much, much older than any recorded mention of druids, but also scribing, to share information with people, is much younger than these megalithic circles too. It seems 'Celtic' became a convenient identity word to use.
The description of an ancient stone circle being a druid's place is also fascinating. Personally, I do not believe that any megalithic structures were created through the orders of 'druids'. Considering what a druid is said to believe in, people of the oak especially, I cannot see druids being very happy about their oaks and other trees being taken away to create a stone structure to replace them?
Sometimes, I wonder if the Romans, and the later monastic founders bred from Roman culture, did a lot of 'tidying up' of ancient megalithic relics to create circles as a place of gathering before they could get the churches constructed?
For me, all of this thought shows how a structure enters into and lives through many changes of use since its creation. Even in my own time on this earth I have seen churches change from being popular places of worship into being restaurants, theatres and art galleries today.
The exhibits at the Celt Art And Identity exhibition were largely excavated during the 19th century and this had a major impact on fashion and identity, especially from about 1850 onwards.
During the mid 19th century, the industrial revolution was taking off. I am sure many people did not want to identify with this elitist, slave creating, genocide monster that they saw this would become. An escape was an indulgence in Celtic Romance.
This Celtic Revival was first expressed by bohemian artists, and their interpretations seeped into the politics of Ireland, Scotland, Isle Of Man, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. These countries and regions drew on components of their heritages and formed a bond together that identified them as being Celtic, Celtic then became an a unified identity to separate them from Britain and France, and even Germany by now.
The Changing 'Tradition'
Today, there are people who regard themselves as strong preservers of 'tradition', of Celtic tradition, of tradition of their 'nation' such as Ireland, or even tradition of their county. They campaign to reject any introduction of new tradition or outside influence upon what they regard as existing precious local traditions.
What they are preserving may only be 100 to 200 years old, at best, in its current form.
I remember talking to one lady who regarded herself as a devoted preserver of local traditional Irish music. I played her some 14th century music from Ireland and her response was, "that's not traditional! Its too old to be traditional!".
Before we went to the Celtic Art And Identity exhibition we visited the Vaughan Williams library of traditional songs, music and dance at the Cecil Sharpe House of the English Folk Dance And Song Society.
I had not been there for about 40 years and at that time there was absolutely no allowance for modern songs. Their library had to be entirely of old and 'traditional' songs and music.
Now, 40 years later, their policy has not changed at all! However, this time, in their library were songs by people like Robin Williamson and Bert Jansch, which were written at the time of my previous visit. Now they are regarded and archived as 'traditional' songs, even though they still hold copyright for a few more years.
This reminded me that trees I planted about 40 years ago are also being harvested now.
For me, this also showed that 'tradition' is never static, and never can be, no matter how some people fight to keep it preserved and unchangeable.
Tradition is an ever changing culture, and so it seems that the Celtic Identity has also been. Its an ever changing culture, and will always be so, and art called 'Celtic' will reveal that, and maybe with a different name to 'Celtic' one day?
What we identify as Celtic today, does not seem to be a preservation of tradition but a recall of components of heritage to form an identity for us today, to help us understand and relate to what we believe in today.
The Celts Art And Identity Exhibition presented our modern Celtic beliif very well as the connecting theme between displaying the beautiful ancient artifacts.
The very last item in the exhibition, before we went through 'Exit', was a Celtic Football Club shirt.