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Celtic Warfare, Part IV—Elite units, Tactics, and Honor

Celtic Warfare, Part IV—The Elite Units

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his look at Celtic warfare with Part IV—the elite units, battle tactics, and honor. Click here for Part I or Part III.

Last time, we talked about how the Celts improved the chariot and used both war chariots and cavalry to sow confusion and panic among the enemy in battle. This time, we’ll look at the elite units of Celtic warriors and their battle tactics.

Naked Warriors?

Although most Celts wore colorful clothing, often indicating their status in society, some bands of Celtic warriors fought naked. That’s right. They went into battle with only a sword, a shield, and the suit they were born with. They did it for religious reasons, believing it enhanced their spiritual connection with Mother Earth, and possibly the goddess Danu. If they died in battle, they hoped it would ensure rebirth in the Otherworld. We also have tales of the ancient Irish, some of whom not only fought naked, they died themselves blue and put lye in their hair to make it stand straight up, all the better to instill fear in their enemies.


Celtic Warrior Leaders

Other Elites

Other elite groups include the Craobh Ruadh or Red Branch warriors of Ulster. Then there are the Degad, warriors exiled to Munster. The Nase Niadh formed an elite bodyguard for Munster’s kings. The Eóghanacht dynasty of Munster also had its Niadh Nask, the military order of the golden chain. This organization continued into modern times, bestowing an honorary title. The Ríglach was another warrior elite that served as a royal bodyguard for Leinster. They recruited from the young sons of kings.

Battle Tactics

We think of the vaunted Roman phalanx, where shields are locked together to form an impregnable wall, nearly impervious to sword and lance. But this, too, originated with the Celts. Before contact with the Celts, Roman shields were small and round. Only after they adopted the longer, body-length Celtic shields were they able to imitate the Celtic battle tactic of the tortoise and their interlocking shields. Here, it appears history gave the Romans credit for another Celtic invention.

Honor Over Strategy

Now we come full circle to the issue that began this series on Celtic warfare—Celtic honor. Imagine two warring Celtic tribes facing each other on the field of battle. Individual courage could decide who won the contest. Because of their individualistic natures, they were averse to central authority and discipline imposed from above. Thus, it was custom for one warrior to step from the front ranks, wave his sword, and brag of his deeds in front of their adversary. He would challenge the enemy to produce their own mighty warrior. In this way, an issue of honor between two clans could be decided by single combat between two individuals. The victor and the army behind him would walk away, having “won” the battle. The losing side accepted the outcome.

But in a fight with the Romans, things turned out differently. When a Celt lost such an individual combat, the Celtic army would relinquish the field. But when the Roman challenger lost, the Roman army simply attacked with increased fury. They had no respect for the custom. The treacherous Romans valued strategy over honor.

Ritual Suicide

Because of their devotion to honor, a war leader who led their army to great loss would often take his own life through ritual suicide. In this, the Celtic custom followed those of many other ancient peoples, from the Romans to the Gauls to the Britains.

Women in Battle

In our previous series on Celtic women, we also previously pointed out the Celtic tradition of women warrior leaders.

The main source for this post was The Celts, by Peter Berresford Ellis.

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of Christian historical fiction set in ancient, Celtic Ireland at the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, follow the link above.

2 replies
  1. Dan Cook
    Dan Cook says:

    I loved this! And being of Celtic heritage I swell with pride reading your writings of the ancient Celts. I’m studying and have came quite a distance in learning more of my people so please keep it coming.

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