When the sun is shining, the wooded banks of the Menai Strait between Wales and the island of Anglesey, are a most attractive spot. Brightly colour canoeists bob on the deep blue water, flocks of seagulls wheel overhead, and the graceful lines of Telford’s Menai Bridge provide the perfect frame for the scene.
Two thousand years ago, however, the place was not nearly so peaceful. On the mainland side stood serried ranks of Roman soldiers watching impassively as their opponents on the other bank raced up and down in their fearsome war chariots. Ripples of unease passed along the ranks as a procession of white robed druids came down to the water’s edge and began invoking the Celtic gods, dark deities of vengeful malice and implacable thirst for blood. A band of women, bare breasted, their hair streaming in the wind, shrieked curses on the invaders from the heights behind the warriors.
Suetonius Paulinus? waited calmly, for his army and its flotilla of rafts was merely a decoy. A mile or so away, round a bend in the winding watercourse, a picked band of north African troopers who could swim like fish and who feared neither god nor man, was swimming the dangerous tidal waters of the straits.
At last the Africans, their swarthy faces adding to the terror their wild yells provoked, appeared and fell on the Britons, slaying warriors, priests and women with callous impartiality. Under cover of the confusion the rest of the army swarmed across and the massacre commenced.
Anglesey, a remote island at the furthest extremity of Wales, might have been spared longer if it had not been so significant for the Celtic tribes of Britain. Even today it is known as “Mam Cymru” – the Mother of Wales – but back then it was the chief sanctuary of the British Celts and Suetonius and his men were sickened by the evidence they found of the savage Celtic rites. Groves of oak trees held the rotting remains of human sacrifices still hanging from their limbs and temple thresholds were stained with the black marks of human blood or decorated with skulls and freshly decapitated human heads.
These descriptions of pagan savagery might be regarded as Roman propaganda were it not for the fact that we have, in France, the remains of a great Celtic sanctuary at Roquefort have been found, where three huge stone pillars had niches carved in them to hold skulls. The discoverers of the site were apalled to find that several of the niches still held ancient skulls, grinning out at them.
Curiously enough, other testimony to the savage rites practised by the Celts comes from Gordion, in the heart of Turkey.
Gordion is best known to history for the story of how Alexander the Great cut the Gordion knot, an intricate rope puzzle whose solving would, allegedly, reveal the future ruler of the world. Today it is almost as famous for the massive burial mound of King Midas, which we visit on the annual Diggings Tour. Less well known is the fact that several decades after Alexander’s visit the area was invaded by a wandering tribe of Gauls, who settled down on its fertile plains, much to the discomfort of neighbouring kingdoms.
The Gauls, a Celtic people closely related to the peoples of France and Britain, were noted for their prowess in war, when the men, their hair stiffened with a lime wash, would rush naked into battle. Taller and more strongly built than the short, slender peoples of the Mediterranean, their very appearance inspired terror. Add in the harsh braying of their war trumpets, the chanting of the druids and the discordant battle cries of the warriors and it is no wonder that many armies turned tail and fled rather than stand and fight.
At one time the Gauls attacked the prosperous kingdom of Pergamon and Attalos(?), the king of Pergamon, was only able to nerve his men for the battle by a trick. He wrote the Greek word “NIKE” – “victory” – backwards on the palm of his hand and then contrived to be the one who passed the liver of a sacrificial victim to the waiting augurs. The astonished priests proclaimed that they saw clear prognostications of victory and so inspired the soldiers that they rushed into battle with an enthusiasm almost equal to that of the Gauls. As their discipline and their weapons were better than those of the Gauls, the result was a victory that sent the Gauls scurrying back to Gordion for a period of unparalleled peace.
The Gauls of Turkey are best known, however, from the fact that their renowned impetuosity and readiness to fall in with any novel ideas led the great apostle Paul to address them by letter in the sternest possible terms. “O foolish Galatians!” he exclaims – and the sting of the adjective he used loses much in translation – “who has bewitched you?”
Needless to say, some have questioned whether there were really Galatoi in the area – it never ceases to amaze me how some people feel compelled to question and quibble over every little detail found in the Bible – but artifacts and architectural remains excavated in the region leave no doubt that St Paul’s Galatians were really Celts. The mud brick houses in which King Midas’ subjects lived were covered by monumental buildings of cut stone, adorned by a stone sculpture of a double-faced figure that is typical of Celtic sites elsewhere in Europe.
Gordion is being excavated by teams from the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, led by Dr Mary Voigt from the William and Mary College. She explains that the Galatian remains were ignored by earlier excavators, who dug through them in order to get at what they regarded as the more interesting ruins from the Greek and Phrygian periods.
An added problem was the difficulty of distinguishing Celtic remains, for in their long journey from Central Europe to Galatia the Gauls had picked up many customs and artefacts from the tribes they had conquered and, indeed, had become extensively Hellenised. Dr Keith DeVries, former director of the Gordion excavations remarked, “It used to be hard to detect the Galatians at Gordion. There was not a single artifact that was absolutely demonstrable as Celtic. Some began to think the literary sources must be misleading us.”
And then the archaeologists came across five skeletons that had apparently been left to lie on open ground, while nearby another four were discovered buried in a deep pit. Nearly all showed the typical sign of strangulation – a broken hyoid bone (the hyoid bone is in the throat and forms part of the voice box.) Several also had broken necks, perhaps indicating that they had been dropped from a height with a noose around their necks. One middle-aged woman had been strangled, but her skull was also fractured. Another woman, buried beneath her, had suffered an even more gruesome death, for two heavy millstones had been placed on her chest, pinning her down while earth was piled on top of her, burying her alive.
“The treatment of these people is undoubtedly linked to ritual practices that began in third-century Gordion and would represent continuity of Celtic traditions,” said Dr Voigt, pointing out that the bones of two young children appeared to have been deliberately mixed, with the older child’s jawbone being placed on the skull of the younger child. “Such practices are well known from Celtic sites in Europe and are now documented for Anatolian Celts as well,” says Dr Voigt.
Perhaps most evocative of all was one skull which bore traces of wood in the neck region, indicating that it may have been impaled on a stake for some considerable period of time.
Most likely these victims were prisoners of war, sacrificed to the fierce Celtic gods as thanks for victory. Others, however, may have died before the battle began, for the druids had the pleasant custom of stabbing a captive in the stomach and then foretelling the future from such infallible signs as the way in which the victim fell to the ground, the way in which he writhed and the pattern left by his blood.
Anyone who thinks that the druids were benign philosophers and poets, living in harmony with nature and teaching love and benevolence, is living in a fantasy world of their own invention. The evidence, both literary and archaeological is far otherwise. For example, in another part of the town the archaeologists came upon a heap of more than 2,000 animal bones which they called “Bone Cluster 3”. The age of the animals at death indicates that they were probably killed in the autumn, perhaps to celebrate the Celtic festival of Samhain, which still lingers on as Halloween.
Among the animal bones, however, were the dismembered remains of three humans, a man of 40, a woman of 35 and a child of 8, who may have been members of a single family. The only realistic explanation for their presence among so many animal bones is that they, too, were killed and eaten during the feast.
Although the Romans outlawed human sacrifice wherever they held sway, the evidence is that old customs died hard. Although the Galatians intermarried with the surrounding peoples and may, by the time of St Paul, have lost their original distinctive appearance, St Jerome, writing in the fourth century AD, remarks that the Galatians still spoke a language similar to that he had heard in Trier. While we cannot be certain, it is possible that some of the bones found at Gordion actually date from after the Roman conquest of Asia Minor.
In which case, we are left with renewed admiration for St Paul. It took a brave man to call these savages “stupid idiots”, even by letter from a distance – and particularly as Paul proposed to visit them again. Savagery lurked only a little way below the surface of Galatian life and Paul may have been treading on dangerous ground when he declared, “As for those who are persuading you to be circumcised, I wish they would go the whole hog and castrate themselves!”
It is no wonder that St Paul closed his letter with a paean in praise of the gentler virtues that are the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The Gauls of Gordion certainly needed them.
Article used with permission of Diggins Online. You can find more useful material at Apologtetics Courses, Free Courses and Brethren Assembly. Secular materials can be found at Coins Encyclopedia and Guide For Income