UD: October 2017
UD: October 2017
UD: October 2018
‘In dama huair ann ba rigan roisclethan ro alainn;
Ocus in uair aill… na baidb biraigh banghalis’.
(At one moment she was a broad-eyed, most beautiful queen,
And another time a beaked, white-grey badb)
(Harleian manuscript 4.22)
The central tenet of Celtic religion was metempsychosis – the transmigration of the soul and its reincarnation after death (Caesar J. De Bello Gallica, Book VI, XIV). This belief is probably best summed up by the Roman poet Lucanus (1st c. AD):
While you, ye Druids, when the war was done,
To mysteries strange and hateful rites returned:
To you alone ’tis given the heavenly gods
To know or not to know; secluded groves
Your dwelling-place, and forests far remote.
If what ye sing be true, the shades of men
Seek not the dismal homes of Erebus
Or death’s pale kingdoms; but the breath of life
Still rules these bodies in another age-
Life on this hand and that, and death between.
Happy the peoples ‘neath the Northern Star
In this their false belief; for them no fear
Of that which frights all others: they with hands
And hearts undaunted rush upon the foe
And scorn to spare the life that shall return.
(Pharsalia Book 1:453-456)
A similar account of the Celtic belief system is provided by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (V.28:5-6; 1st century BC):
“…for the belief of Pythagoras prevails among them, that the souls of men are immortal and that after a prescribed number of years they commence upon a new life, the soul entering into another body”.
In the transportation of the soul from one world to the next Birds of Prey played a central role:
‘to these men death in battle is glorious;
And they consider it a crime to bury the body of such a warrior;
For they believe that the soul goes up to the gods in heaven,
If the body is exposed on the field to be devoured by the birds of prey’.
(Silius Italicus (2nd c. AD) Punica 3 340-343)
‘…those who laid down their lives in war they regard as noble, heroic and full of valor,
And them cast to the vultures believing this bird to be sacred’.
(Claudius Aelianus. De Natur. Anim. X. 22)
The removal of flesh from corpses, which is well documented in the Celtic world, had a mortuary significance that differed greatly from the Greco-Roman practices (Soprena Genzor 1995: 198 ff.). The last 25 years of research have revealed how interments were the culmination of previous very complex rituals. The removal of flesh before interment is clearly attested at Celtic sanctuaries like Ribemont (Brunaux 2004: 103-24), but the enormous deficit of interments, especially in the late La Têne period, can be partially explained by the exposure of corpses with the consequent destruction of most of the skeleton. This exposure ritual was a genuine self-sacrifice, as the enemy who had taken the life of the warrior, just as the bird of prey who devoured him, was merely the hand of the god (Soprena 1995; Brunaux 2004: 118-24).
Recent excavations, such as those at Ham Hill in Somerset (England), have provided further evidence of the Celtic practice of excarnation – the ritual exposure of corpses to the elements and scavengers.
The finds at Ham Hill include ritualistic burials – arrangements of human skulls as well as bodies tossed into a pit, left exposed and gnawed by animals and Birds of Prey. At the site “hundreds, if not thousands of bodies”, dated from the 1st or 2nd century AD, have been found treated in this fashion.
The Ribemont-Sur-Ancre ‘Tower of Silence’
This shrine/sanctuary was erected on the site of the Battle at Ribemont (northern France), where around 1,000 Celtic warriors are believed to have died. The victorious Belgae erected this shrine to celebrate the great battle, decapitated the bodies of the defeated warriors taking the heads home with them as trophies. The headless corpses and thousands of weapons collected from the battle field were hung from a large wooden platform (‘Tower of Silence’).
Evidence of weathering and dismemberment of the dead at the site, and others such as Ham Hill, is consistent with the well documented Celtic religious practice of exposing corpses after death to be devoured by Birds of Prey and carnivores (Soprena Genzor 1995: 198 ff.).
(Normandy/2/1 c. BC)
On the Balkans, the same ritual is described by Pausanias (X, 21, 3) in connection with the Celtic migration into the Balkans at the beginning of the 3rd c. BC. Celtic warriors who fell in battle during the invasion of Greece were likewise left exposed to be devoured by birds of prey, consistent with the religious practice outlined above (Churchin 1995; Mac Congail 2010: 57).
In light of the significance given to birds of prey in Celtic culture it is interesting to note the ‘name’ of the leader of the Celtic offensive on Greece at the beginning of the 3rd c. BC, the same as that of the chieftain who led the Celtic tribes who sacked Rome a century earlier – Brennos. It is unlikely that this is coincidence, and it appears that Brennos was not a personal name, but a military title given to the overall commander of a Celtic army drawn from different tribes. The term comes from the Proto-Celtic *brano- (Matasović R. 2009; Mac Congail 2010: 54-59), and means literally The Raven.
Portrait of the Bird Goddess/Catubodua on the obverse of a Celto-Scythian gold stater (1st c. BC)
The importance of the raven, and birds of prey in general, in Celtic culture and religion is archaeologically confirmed by their frequent appearance on Celtic artifacts and coins. For example, of the more than 500 Celtic brooches with representational decoration now known, from Bulgaria in the east to Spain in the west, more than half depict birds (Megaw 2001: 87). On the Balkans, birds of prey also appear on artifacts such as the Celtic helmet from Ciumesti (Romania), similar examples of which are depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron, produced by the Scordisci in northwestern Bulgaria. Depictions of Birds of Prey are also found on the Celtic chariot fittings from Mezek in southern Bulgaria, and Balkan Celtic sacrificial daggers.
Bronze Celtic fibula from Ingelfingen-Criesbach in southern Germany, depicting a human head crowned by a bird of prey
(5-4 c. BC)
Detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron
Celtic Chieftain’s Helmet from Ciumeşti (Romania) with Bird of Prey attachment
The Celtic Mother Goddess – the Morrígan / Morrígu, was a triple goddess, appearing as a trinity consisting of Macha, Anann and the Badb. The Celts believed that the Badb/war-goddess, or more accurately the mother goddess in her war mien, appeared to warriors slain in battle in the form of a bird of prey, most often a crow or raven (O h’Ogain 2002: 22; Mackillop 2004:30; Mac Congail 2010: 72-76). Her presence was not only a symbol of imminent death, but to also influence the outcome of battle. Most often she did this by appearing as a crow/raven flying overhead, and would either inspire fear or courage in the hearts of the warriors, or, in rare cases, join in the battle herself.
This aspect of the goddess was known as the Catubodua (battle-raveness) which survived in later Celtic tradition as the Cathbhadhbh or Badhbh Chatha (loc cit).
From Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary originate Celtic coins (of both the Philip II (fig. 4/5) and Paeonia models (fig. 6/7) on which a Bird of Prey is depicted behind the left shoulder of the horseman, accompanying him into battle. The presence of the triskele on the Paeonia model coins in particular confirms the religious nature of the images. On the vogelreiter type (fig. 7), from the 3rd – 2nd c. BC, the horseman himself is portrayed as a skeleton, the ‘deathrider’ again accompanied by a Bird of Prey.
Celtic gilded silver phalera from Surcea (Covasna county), Romania. Note the Bird of Prey behind the left shoulder of the warrior (late 2nd/ early 1st c. BC)
Depiction of the Mother Goddess with torcs and birds of prey on a Celto-Thracian harness appliqué from Galiche (Vratza reg.) in northeastern Bulgaria
(2-1 c. BC)
This theme is also represented on other Celtic coins from the Balkans, with depictions of the mother goddess – the Morrígan (Great Queen) in her personification as the Badhbh Chatha / Battle Raven. Such is the case, for example, with her portrayal on Celtic ‘Thasos model’ coins from Bulgaria (fig. 8), as well as some of the Paeonian ‘imitations’ (fig. 9).
Fig. 8 – Depiction of the Goddess on the Reverse of a Celtic Thasos type issue from Bulgaria
(after Mac Congail/Krusseva 2010)
In fig. 9 the obverse portrays the central theme of transformation of the goddess, while the reverse is packed with religious symbolism, including the triskele symbol and Celtic inscription. The central image again portrays the mother-goddess in her personification as the war raven – Badhbh Chatha.
(Gobl 436; BMC 131)
THE THREE REALMS – Reverse of a Celtic tetradrachm from southern Hungary (2nd c. BC), depicting a horseman, child and bird of prey; representing the 3 phases of life in Celtic belief – childhood, adulthood and death/transition.
(Modern) Sources Cited
Brunaux J.L. (2004) Guerre et religion en Gaule. Essai d’anthropologie celtique. Paris: Errance.
Churchin L.A. (1995) The Unburied Dead at Thermopylae (279 BC) In: The Ancient History Bulletin 9: 68-71
Soprena Genzor G. (1995) Ética y ritual. Aproximación al estudio de la religiosidad de los pueblos celtibéricos. Zaragosa.
Mac Congail B., Krusseva B. (2010) The Men Who Became the Sun – Barbarian Art and Religion on the Balkans. Plovdiv. (In Bulgarian)
Mackillop, James (2004) A dictionary of Celtic mythology. Oxford University Press
Marco Simón F. (2008) Images of Transition. The Ways of Death in Celtic Hispania. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 74, 2008. Pp. 53-68.
Matasović R. (2009) Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic. Leiden and Boston
Megaw V., Megaw R. (2001) Celtic Art from its Beginnings to the Book of Kells. London.
Ó hÓgáin D. (2002) The Celts – A Chronological History. Cork.
UD: June 2017
It is said that fact is stranger than fiction. The case of the Macedonian king Ptolemy Keraunos (Πτολεμαῖος Κεραυνός) certainly confirms this.
RISE OF A THUNDERBOLT
Keraunos (Greek for Thunderbolt) was born the eldest son of Ptolemy I Soter, ruler of Egypt, and Eurydice, daughter of Antipater, the Macedonian regent. He first appears in history in 282 BC in connection with a plot by the Macedonian king Lysimachus to murder his son – Agatholes. The apparent reason for Lysimachus’ displeasure with his son was that Agathocles was having an affair with Lysimachus’ wife (his own mother), Arsinoe of Egypt, who also happened to be Ptolemy Keraunos’ sister. Actually, according to the ancient historians, Lysimachus was displeased with the situation, not because the boy was having sex with his mother, but because his wife and son were rumored to be plotting together against Lysimachus (Memnon 12:6). Incest among the Macedonian aristocracy was a common occurrence (see below), but political infidelity was not tolerated.
To solve this family problem the king decided to murder his son, who was duly given a dose of poison. Unfortunately for Lysimachus, Agathocles, apparently realizing his father’s intentions at the last moment, spat out the poison. Faced with this embarrassing situation, Lysimachus subsequently threw the boy into a dungeon and called on his brother-in-law, Ptolemy Keraunos, to finish the job. Happy to oblige, soon afterwards Keraunos visited his nephew in his cell and stabbed him to death. According to the ancient historian Memnon (Memnon: History of Heracleia 12’6, 8′ 4-6), it was for this deed that Ptolemy received the title Keraunos – The Thunderbolt.
However, according to other ancient historians (Justinus XXIV,3; Pausinias 1. 16:2. 10.19 7-12), Ptolemy received his ‘title’ for another murder soon afterwards. After Lysimachus’ defeat and death at the Battle of Corupedium in 281 BC, against Seleucus I Nicator, the Macedonian throne passed to Seleucus who now held the whole of Alexander’s conquests excepting Egypt, and moved to take possession of Macedonia and Thrace. On his journey home to Macedonia in September 281 BC Seleucus was accompanied by Ptolemy Keraunos, who he, for some unexplained reason, had taken under his protection. However, as soon as they arrived in the Thracian Chersonese Keraunos, in a magnificant example of opportunism, murdered the old general, jumped on his horse and rode to the city of Lysimachia, where he immediately crowned himself King of Macedonia (Pausinias 1.16.2).
Seleucus I Nicator (bronze). Roman copy from a Greek original, from Herculaneum.
(National Archaeological Museum of Naples)
Thus, through treachery and murder Keraunos had made himself king of Macedonia. However, in order to secure his hold on the throne he now resorted to another strategy – incest. The main threat to Ptolemy’s hold on the Macedonian throne was presented by Lysimachus and Philip, the remaining sons of Keraunos’ sister Arsinoe (Keraunos had already murdered the eldest). In order to get at the children, over the next few months Keraunos wooed his sister with gifts and proclamations of undying love, until finally, convinced that her brother truly loved both her and her children, she consented to marry him.
The wedding was celebrated with great magnificence and general rejoicings. Ptolemy, before the assembled army, placed a diadem on his sister’s head, and saluted her with the title of Queen. Arsinoe invited Ptolemy to her city Cassandrea and her sons, Lysimachus who was sixteen years old, and Philip three years younger, went to meet their uncle/father with crowns on their heads. The events which followed were indeed a Greek tragedy:
‘Ptolemy, to conceal his treachery, caressing them with eagerness, and beyond the warmth of real affection, persisted for a long time in kissing them. But as soon as he arrived at the gate, he ordered the citadel to be seized, and the boys to be slain. They, fleeing to their mother, were slain upon her lap, as she was embracing them.
She several times offered herself to the assassins in the room of her children, and, embracing them, covered their bodies with her own, endeavouring to receive the wounds intended for them. At last, deprived even of the dead bodies of her sons, she was dragged out of the city, with her garments torn and her hair dishevelled, and with only two attendants went to live in exile in Samothracia; sorrowing the more, that she was not allowed to die with her children’.
(Just. 24.2’1-3’9; see also Memn. 8’7; Plut: Mor 112’A; Trog: Prol 24).
However, Arsinoe’s grief did not last long. Shortly afterwards she returned to Egypt where she continued her intrigues and instigated the accusation and exile of her other brother’s wife (another Arsinoe – confusingly called Arsinoe I). Arsinoe II then married her brother Ptolemy II (Pausanias (I 7.1). As a result, both were given the epithet “Philadelphoi” (Greek: Φιλάδελφοι, “Sibling-loving”) (see also S.M. Burstein, “Arsinoe II Philadelphos: A Revisionist View”, in W.L. Adams and E.N. Borza (eds), Philip II, Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Heritage (Washington, 1982), 197-212). For all her worldly charms the Ptolemy (s) sister/wife was subsequently deified and worshipped as a goddess after her death (see Ladynin I, Popova E. (2010) An Egyptian Pendant from the Settlement ‘Chayka’ (North-Western Crimea) and the Posthumous Divinization of Arsinoe II Philadelphos. In: Vestnik drevney istorii (Journal of Ancient History) 2 (273), 2010, p. 71-85 (in Russian).
Cameo Gonzaga. Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II (III c. BC, Alexandria. Hermitage)
In a short period of time a series of brutal murders had secured the Macedonian throne for Ptolemy Keraunos, who now proclaimed himself the successor to Alexander the Great. It appeared that Keraunos had played the game perfectly, and that the Gods had smiled on him. However, as the new Macedonian king was concentrating on his internal enemies he had apparently forgotten the bigger picture. In the summer of 280 BC, as ‘The Thunderbolt’ settled on his newly acquired throne, to the north the ravens were gathering…
‘But the crimes of Ptolemy were not unpunished; for soon after the immortal gods inflicted vengeance on him for so many perjuries, and such cruel murders’. (Justinus XXIV, 3)
The first warnings of the gathering storm arrived at the Macedonian court in the form of ambassadors from the Dardanii tribe who reported a massive Celtic army approaching from the north. To emphasize the gravity of the situation the Dardanians offered Ptolemy 20,000 warrriors to help the Macedonians hold back the Celtic advance. However, Keraunos laughed at the ambassadors, boasting that as successors of Philip II and Alexander the Great, the Macedonians who ‘had been victorious throughout the world’ (Justinus XXIV, 4) required no help from ‘barbarians’. While arrogant, Ptolemy’s reply was not without a certain machiavellian logic. By refusing to come to the aid of the Dardanii, Keraunos hoped to ‘kill two birds with one stone’, presuming that the resulting battle between the Dardanii and the Celts would weaken both to such an extent that neither would subsequently present a threat to Macedonia.
However, if Ptolemy had paused to consider the statistics, he might have thought twice. The force of 20,000 offered by the Dardanii was in itself a large army by any standards, and the fact that they knew that this would not be enough to stop the Celtic advance without Macedonian help illustrates that the advancing Celtic army (Bolgios’ western army) massively outnumbered them. In any event Ptolemy had made the first of many fatal miscalculations. Wisely, the Dardanii did not try to stop the Celts. Instead they joined them, and as they advanced on Macedonia, the Celtic army was now reinforced by 10,000 Dardanians.
Again ambassadors arrived at Ptolemy’s court, this time from the Celtic leader, Bolgios. Apparently believing that they offered peace terms because they wished to avoid a fight, Ptolemy arrogantly informed the Celts that if they laid down their weapons and surrendered their leaders, he would spare their lives. We are informed that, ‘The deputies bringing back this answer, the Gauls laughed, and exclaimed throughout their camp, that “he would soon see whether they had offered peace from regard for themselves or for him.” (Justinus XXIV, 5).
Celtic warrior helmet from burial #143 at Lychnidos/Ohrid, FYR Macedonia (3rd c. BC)
The commander of the western Celtic army in Macedonia is referred to in classical sources as Bolgios and also as Belgio/Belgios – Galli duce Belgio (Just. xxiv, 5; cf. Pomp. Prol. xxiv – ‘Belgius leader of the Gauls’). The participation of Belgae tribes in the Celtic migration into the Balkans and Asia-Minor during this period is well recorded (see Mac Congail B. Belgae expansion into South Eastern Europe and Asia-Minor (4th – 3rd c. BC.) In: PRAE. In Honorem Henrieta Todorova. National Archaeological Institute With Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Sofia 2007. p. 295 – 302) and Bolgios/Belgios is, like that of Brennos, not a personal name, but in this case derived from an ethnonym – i.e. Belgius = leader of the Belgae (see also ‘Bastarnae’ and ‘Galatia’ articles).
The exact size of Bolgios’ western army is unknown, but a number of factors indicate that it was a formidable military force. One should bear in mind that this was only one of 3 Celtic armies operating in the Balkans during this period (4 if one includes the ‘Galatian’ force of Lutarius and Leonnorius) and, while exact statistics are not given for the western and eastern armies of Bolgios and Cerethrius, the size of the central Celtic force gives us an indication of the scale of these armies. The central Celtic army consisted of 150,000 infantry, on which all three main sources (Diodorus Siculus Fragm. XXII 9.1; Pausanias 10. 19.9 – 152, 000; Justin XXIV, 6) are agreed. The figure given for the Celtic cavalry varies between 10,000 (Dio. Sic. op. cit; Justin. op cit – 15,000) and 62,700 (Pausanias X 19.9). The remarkably high figure given by Pausinias is explained by the unique cavalry system used by the Celts – the Trimarkisia system.
The Celtic Trimarkisia cavalry system was a system whereby each horseman was accompanied by two mounted servants who were themselves skilled riders. When the horseman was engaged in battle, the servants remained behind the ranks and if a horse fell, they would bring the warrior a fresh horse. If the rider himself were killed, the servant would mount the horse in his masters place, thus replenishing the Celtic ranks. Pausanias (X 19.10-11) also informs us that:
‘I believe that the Gauls in adopting these methods copied the Persian regiment of the Ten Thousand, who were called the Immortals. There was, however, this difference. The Persians used to wait until the battle was over before replacing casualties, while the Gauls kept reinforcing the horsemen to their full number during the height of the action. This organization is called in their native speech trimarcisia, for I would have you know that marca is the Celtic name for a horse’.
As they advanced south the Celts were joined by large numbers of warriors from the Balkan tribes, particularly the Dardanii, the Thracian Denteletes and the Illyrian Autariatae tribe (on the participation of the Denteletes see Gerov 1961 – Проучвания върху западнотракийските земи през римско време. In ГСУ, ФЗФ, т. 54, 3, 1961). The Macedonian general, Kassandros, had settled 20,000 of the Autariatae in the Orbelos area (on the modern Greek/Bulgarian border) as military settlers in order to establish a buffer zone protecting Macedonia’s northern border from Celtic expansion (Diodorus Siculus Bibliotheca historica XX. 19.1). However, as the Celts now advanced, instead of defending Macedonia’s borders against the Celts, the Autariatae joined them. Interestingly, there is no record of any of the Balkan tribes supporting the Macedonians during this conflict, and it would appear that many of the Balkan peoples saw the arrival of the Celts as an opportunity to finally free themselves from centuries of Macedonian dominance.
THUNDERBOLTS AND ELEPHANTS
The inevitable battle between the Macedonians and Bolgios’ Celts took place a few days after the ‘negotiations’ had broken down. The Macedonian army was the unchallenged military ‘superpower’ in the region during this period, and past Macedonian victories had instilled in the Hellenistic world in general, and Ptolemy Keraunos in particular, a belief in the invincibility of the Macedonian military against the armies of ‘inferior’ cultures, which is clearly reflected in Ptolemy’s attitude to both the Dardanian and Celtic ambassadors.
The armies of the Diadochi period were equipped and fought mainly in the same style as Alexander’s, and the famous Macedonian phalanx was still the main component, much like in the earlier days. Its disadvantage was its lack of versatility, but as long as both armies were playing by the same rules this weakness in the Macedonian military tactics was not apparent. However, now faced with an army which did not play by the rules of Hellenistic warfare, the game was about to change…
The battle of Issos between Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia. Floor mosaic, Roman copy after a Hellenistic original by Philoxenos of Eretria. (Naples National Archaeological Museum)
What followed was, according to ancient authors, less a battle than a full-scale slaughter (Polyb. 9.35’4; Diod. Sic. 22.3’1-2; Memn. 8’8; Plut. Pyrrh. 22’2; Paus. 1.16’2; Just. 24. 3’10). Keraunos’ battle strategy was built around the use of battle elephants, apparently believing that these beasts would terrify the barbarians. In fact, it appears that the opposite was true.The Macedonian ranks quickly collapsed in the face of the Celtic onslaught, Ptolemy’s battle elephants rearing out of control and adding to the bloody chaos. During the ensuing events the Macedonian king fell off the elephant he was riding, and was captured. His army fled in disarray and, turning their backs on the enemy, the Macedonians became easy prey for the advancing Celtic cavalry. The majority were slaughtered on the battlefield and those that surrendered were rounded up and ritually beheaded.
Of the Macedonian king we learn that “Ptolemy, after receiving several wounds, was taken, and his head, cut off and stuck on a lance, was carried round the whole army to strike terror into the enemy”. (Justinus, Epit. 24:5)
Ironically, The Thunderbolt met his fate on the battlefield amid the bodies of his ‘invincible’ Macedonian army; sacrificed to the God of Thunder, with his head impaled on a spear…
On the Celtic Conquest of Thrace and Macedonia:
On these events see also:
Polyb. 9.35’4; Diod. Sic. 22.3’1-2; Memn. 8’8; Plut. Pyrrh. 22’2; Paus. 1.16’2, 10.19’7-12; just. 24.3’10, 5. 5-11; Trog. Prol. 24; Euseb. Chron. 235 a-b, 237 a, 241 b, 243 a; Hieron. Chron. 1736).