CHASING DEMONS – Celtic Ritual Rattles

UD: June 2019


The use of rattles in folk dances and rituals is recorded in cultures throughout the world, either hand-held or attached to ceremonial costumes to dictate the rhythm of ritual dances, and to summon or repel supernatural beings or demons.


irish rattles g

Globular or pear-shaped rattles from Dowris (Co. Offaly), Ireland  (c. 850 BC)
These three rattles, or ‘crotals’, were part of a large find of bronze metalwork made in Dowris bog in the mid-nineteenth century, which included weapons, tools and elaborate sheet metal vessels.
(See Eogan E. (1983), The hoards of the Irish Later Bronze Age (Dublin)


a - a -a - Late Bronze Age rattle ceramic vogelförmige Tonrassel aus Ichstedt, Ldkr. Kyffhäuserkreis

Bird-shaped ceramic rattle from Ichstedt (Ldkr. Kyffhäuserkreis), Germany (Late Bronze Age)



In Celtic Europe rattles appear in the Bronze Age, and by the La Têne period are recorded at sites throughout the continent. Logically, regional variations are to be observed in decoration and form, and rattles of both ceramic and metal have been discovered.



Decorated ceramic rattle from a Celtic (Vaccean) burial at the necropolis of Las Ruedas (Pintia), north-central Spain (2 c. BC)

Celtic rattles discovered in the Vaccean environment from the northern Iberian plateau have been dated between the end of the 3rd century BC and the beginning of the 1st century AD.

(see: Sanz Minguez C., Romero Carnicero F., De Pablo Martinez, R., Górriz Gañán C., Vaccean
Rattles. Toys or Magic Protectors?, in Jiménez Pasalodos Raquel, Till R., Howell M. (eds.),
Music and Ritual: Bridging Material and Living Cultures, Berlin, p. 257–283)



With eastern expansion, from the 4th century BC onwards, rattles also begin to appear at Celtic sites across eastern Europe. Examples include those from Bucsu in Hungary, Hanska-Toloacă in the Republic of Moldova, Buneşti-Avereşti in eastern Romania, Novo Mesto in Slovenia, Zvonimirovo in Croatia, Čurug in northern Serbia and Kabyle in Bulgaria (Rustoiu A., Berecki S. (2015). A further example of such has recently been published from a Celtic burial at Fântânele – Dâmbu Popii in Romania, dating to the 3rd c. BC.


rattle fan romania

The egg-shaped ceramic rattle from a Celtic burial at Fântânele

(After: Rustoiu A., Berecki S. (2015) The Magic of Sounds. A Ceramic Rattle from the La Tène Grave No. 1 at Fântânele – Dambu Popii and Its Functional and Symbolic Significance. In: Representations, Signs and Symbols. Proceedings of the Symposium on Religion and magic. Cluj-Napoca 2015. p. 259-274)



Ceramic rattle from the Celtic (Scordisci) settlement at Čurug (Vojvodina), Serbia (2-1 c. BC)



Rattles have been discovered in the burials of both Celtic adults and also in funerary contexts belonging to children or youngsters, logically indicating that they were regarded as having a protective and preventive function, regardless of the gender or age of the entombed.
An example of the manner in which such metal rattles were used in Celtic music and dance is provided by the modern custom of “Căluş” or “Căluşari” from Romania, which is a male dance related to pre-Christian solar cults. In this case, the rattles are strapped to the legs of the dancers and dictate the dance rhythm (op cit). Metal rattles quite similar to those used in today’s folk costumes have been discovered in Balkan Celtic funerary inventories, for example in Celtic warrior burials # 4 and 12 from Zvonimirovo in Croatia in which the rattles were, as in modern Romanian and Bulgarian folk dances, attached to the garment or the belt.


zvonimirovo rattle and romania g

Metal rattle strapped on the leg of a modern “Căluşar” dancer from Romania, and a similar rattle discovered in a warrior burial (# 4) from the Celtic cemetery at Zvonimirovo, Croatia (2 c. BC)


( On the Celtic burials from Zvonimirovo see: )











Mac Congail













14 thoughts on “CHASING DEMONS – Celtic Ritual Rattles

  1. Rattles were cult items associated with the Orphic-Dionysian mysteries, and have been found in graves of devotees. Mirrors were also deposited in many such graves. I guess rattles and mirrors could function on a semiotic level as devotional paraphernalia, as well as being thought of as having apotropaic importance, or merely representing a favourite object or status-symbol. Of course, mirrors are much commoner finds than rattles in Celtic graves – especially from (Belgic) Britain… In the Greek legends, mirrors and rattles were used by the Titans to transfix baby Dionysus so that they could rend the young god apart, after which he was resurrected as the god of eternal returning life, hence the symbolic cult importance. Of course, such mirrors as grave deposits might manifest simply as bowls of water (such as the one depicted on the frieze of the ‘Villa of The Mysteries’ at Pompeii. The British mirrors generally have a water-pattern design on the surface – less than ideal if the mirrors were being used simply for vanity…. Are there any Celtic or indigenous mirror-burials from the Balkans?

      1. Because we don’t know enough about Celtic religion, sure. However, it opens up the symbolic meaning of Celtic grave goods to questioning – especially as Celtic peoples were widely travelled and highly involved with Hellenic, Carthaginian, Phrygian and Thracian cultures, and copied ‘foreign’ styles and customs. 1st BCE and 1st CE Celtic coins from Britain arguably depict some Bacchic/Eleusinian imagery – probably something to do with the process of fosterage of British nobles with the Augustan court. Dionysus and/or Apollo appear on a number of Celtic coin copies that you have shown here, and the Gundestrup cauldron has (again arguably) Bacchic (or ‘Sabazian’) imagery and themes. Its worth investigating, I think…

  2. Hi, I remember seeing these things in the National Museum in Ireland. There was a member of staff standing nearby and I asked him about them. He said that he had been told that the crotail were some kind of representation of a bull’s testicles and that they were hung from the belt. I was a bit suspicious of this explanation at the time and I like your explanation better, but can we really – I mean one hundred per cent – be certain what these things were or is this just the best guess? Anyway, very interesting!

    1. Of course we can’t be sure what exact significance such artifacts held for the Bronze or Iron Age population. We can only make (hopefully) educated guesses..

  3. True, but can we definitely rule out their use as weapons, or weights, or door-knockers (yes, I’m stretching things here!) Is rattle really the only convincing explanation? I hope it is – as I say, I like the idea that it was part of an ancient Celtic Morris Dancing outfit!

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