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Ancient, Celtic Lifespans and Their Enemies

Ancient, Celtic Lifespans in Early Ireland

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at ancient, Celtic lifespans in early Ireland and their enemies. What were the top seven enemies of a long life in the world of the ancient Celts?


An Iron Age, Celtic Funeral

Enemy #1: Warfare

For those of fighting age—both man and woman alike—it was a violent time to be alive. There were constant raids by other tuatha (clans). Mostly they came for your cattle. But you had to protect your livestock, for that was your wealth and your food. And that meant you engaged  in frequent small battles. People were injured. And injury often led to infection and death.

Enemy #2: Disease

Imagine living in a time without emergency rooms, doctors, and 911. You had your local druid healer, of course. He had his clay jars full of herbs, roots, and flowers that could help for certain diseases. He could even set bones. But his record of healing was spotty, and he tended to blame a lot of things on the spirits. And there was just no pleasing the angry pantheon of Celtic gods. Especially when sickness swept through your roundhouse where everyone slept in one big room in the middle of winter. Disease has to rank at the top of the list. (See my posts on ancient Celtic medicine.)

Enemy #3: Childhood

On infant mortality: “Infancy was particularly dangerous during the Middle Ages—mortality was terribly high. Based on surviving written records alone, scholars have estimated that 20–30 per cent of children under seven died, but the actual figure is almost certainly higher.” (This per http://www.historyextra.com/feature/medieval/10-dangers-medieval-)

Enemy #4: Starvation and Famine

Having enough to eat was always a concern, especially in winter when your tuath depended on what you stored in the fall. A hailstorm or wet weather could ruin the barley or wheat crops. Your fishing boats could fail to bring in enough fish to salt and store up for the winter months. A neighboring tribe could raid and steal your cattle, pigs, or sheep. Or disease could strike your livestock and sicken them. Then your clan might be in danger of starving. And people without enough to eat become susceptible to disease.

Enemy #5: Childbirth

Bearing a child was a risky business. A breech presentation could kill both mother and child. Even when the birth was successful, the mother could die from post-natal complications.

Enemy #6: Accidents and Hunting

Hunting was necessary to augment the food supply, but fraught with peril. Your hunting partners could shoot you with their arrows. You could fall off your horse and break a neck. Or you could be gored by a boar or stag. Even royalty were not immune. In 886, a stag hooked the belt of the Byzantine emperor Basil I and proceeded to drag him fifteen miles before he was freed.

Enemy #7: Travel

No doubt about it, travel was dangerous. You were separated from the protection of your clan. If you got sick, there was no druid healer to attend you. If you were caught in a snowstorm without shelter, you could freeze to death. When you came to a river, you could drown in the crossing. And once you left your home turf, you were fair game for capture, enslavement, or death.

So How Long Did People Live?

Given all that, what was the average life expectancy of a male child born in the Iron Age, the closest era providing us with statistics for the AD 400s? The best guess, per Wikipedia, is 26 years. Childhood was an especially dangerous time. What were the odds you’d live to the age of fifteen? About 60%. But if you made it to fifteen, you might live another 37 years to the ripe old age of 55. There were a few who lived longer, of course. But the odds were against you.

Next week, we’ll look at a tale from ancient, Celtic Ireland—a novel by this author, due to be released just over a week from now: The Bonfires of Beltane.

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The Mystery of Ancient, Celtic Ringforts, Part II

Ancient, Celtic Ringforts — Why Did They Exist?

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his look at ancient, Celtic ringforts in Ireland—Part II. (Click here to view Part I.)

We’ve seen how the remains of ringforts dot the land of Ireland, with nearly 40,000 sites still in existence. In ancient times, you’d find one ringfort every two square kilometers. So why did the ancient Irish build so many of these massive stone or earthen structures? And for what purpose? Here are the theories:

  1. As a dwelling place and status symbol for the clan’s king.

    A Wooden Palisade Ringfort

A king ruled each of the many tuatha, or clans, of ancient Ireland. A ringfort was large enough to hold several dwellings. The hillforts of Tara and Emain Macha could each contain a village. (Hillforts are distinguished from ringforts by their larger size and later construction.) So some suggest that ringforts were the abode of the tuatha kings, and the larger their size and depth, the greater the king’s status and importance. This is plausible, although it doesn’t rule out a secondary defensive purpose.

  1. As a ceremonial structure for druids.

Another theory is that ringforts were essentially ceremonial, that within their walls the druids would perform their sacred rites. This, to me, overlooks the obvious defensive nature of a fort. And then what was the purpose of the rings of standing stones that the druids built outside the forts?

  1. Smaller ringforts were simply farmsteads.

How would a farmer protect himself from the frequent raiders and the attacks of neighboring clans, if he lived far from the others of his tuath (clan)? He might construct a small fort of stones where he could defend his family and his livestock. This theory, I like. It makes eminent sense for some of the smaller ringforts.

  1. Ringforts were merely cattle enclosures.

How would members of a tuath protect their cattle from the frequent raids of their enemies? They might band together and build a large stone enclosure. When the alarm sounded and the cattle raiders came—and cattle-raiding was a common problem—they would herd their livestock inside. Once their cattle, which was their wealth, was safely within, they could go out and meet the enemy in battle.

Perhaps each night they also herded their cattle inside the fort to keep them safe from wolves. Then they could sleep easily in their roundhouses. I find merit to this theory as well.

  1. Ringforts were used for industry.

Some sites provide little evidence of habitation, but instead show remains of pottery making. On the coast in County Cork. one such ringfort suggests a center for trading with the continent. This may simply be a later use for a ringfort during the Christian era.

  1. Ringforts were mainly for defense.

    Remains of Stone Ringfort, with Reconstructed Palisade

We’ve seen many uses suggested for ringforts. I can accept most of them, except for the ceremonial venue. It seems obvious these are defensive structures, little different from the early motte and bailey castles that came after. (Motte—a circular defense of earth, often topped by spikes and surrounded by a moat. Within the motte is a bailey or courtyard. A keep, or small tower, sits inside the courtyard as a last line of defense against attack.)

Most ringforts were large enough to hold one or more roundhouses, each of which held a fine, or extended family group. In case of attack, the fines might also herd their cattle, sheep, and pigs inside. At all times they might stock the fort with animal feed. When the cattle raiders came, the tuath could either throw spears and shoot arrows from the walls. Or the men—and the fighting women—could leave the children and the other women inside and go out to do battle with the enemy. Most raids would have been short, temporary affairs, not long sieges.

Ringforts Served Multiple Purposes

That the ringforts served more than one purpose seems clear. When not used for defense, the fort could also be the home of the king. Another tuath might fit the roundhouses of several fines inside.

But that so many ringforts dotted the ancient land bespeaks a time of great danger, turmoil, and constant raids.

Sources for this post: Wikipedia, http://www.mythicalireland.com/ancientsites/, and Pagan Celtic Ireland by Barry Raftery.

Next time, we’ll look at lifespans, and its enemies, in ancient, Celtic Ireland.

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The Mystery of Ancient, Irish Ringforts — Part I

The Mystery of Ancient, Celtic Ringforts and Hillforts — Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at the mystery of ringforts and hillforts in ancient, Celtic Ireland—Part I.

Fifty Thousand Ringforts?

Ringforts. Circular stone fortresses from a hundred feet to three hundred yards in diameter, with towering, twenty- and thirty-foot walls. In Ireland today, nearly 40,000 sites have been identified as ringforts, with an estimated 10,000 more still undiscovered. They were built as early as 1100 B.C. and as late as A.D. 1000. Ireland can claim one ringfort for every two square kilometers. If made of earth it’s called a ráth. A more impressive fortress, not always circular, is called a dún. What were these impressive structures? And why so many? This post will examine both a hillfort and a ringfort.


Hill of Tara

Tara, Hill of Legend—The Ráth na Ríogh

When I visited Tara in present-day county Meath, the place filled me with awe. (The ancient borders kept shifting; Leinster used to claim it.) The Ráth na Ríogh is essentially a giant hillfort, an earthwork defense encircling the top a high hill. Not much is left of the original, but it was once a hilltop fortress nearly 300 meters in diameter. The palace of the king of Tara sat here. As did a druid temple. Barry Raftery, the preeminent archaeologist, distinguishes the larger hillforts like Tara from the smaller ringforts. For our purposes we’ll look at both kinds of structures.

Within Tara’s borders also lies the Mound of the Hostages, a megalithic “passage tomb” dated to about 2,500 B.C. Why so named? Because of the ancient custom of holding important personages hostage from subject kingdoms to ensure their continued allegiance. On two days of the year, aligning with the Celtic festivals of Samhain and Imbolc, the sun shines directly to the back of the short, thirteen-foot passage.

Also present is the Stone of Destiny, the Lia Fáil. This stone was said to be a gift of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the legendary god-like people who were said to have originally populated Ireland. And when the true king of Tara struck it, the stone was said to sing. (In my upcoming novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, the doomed king Lóeghaire, after Patrick lights the Beltane fire before him, bemoans his fate when he strikes the stone and it no longer sings.)

06/18/14: Inishmore. Dun Aengus Fort

Dún Aengus Fort on Inishmore

Dún Aengus on Inis Mór—For Defense or Ceremony?

Most of the Emerald Isle’s ringforts were made of the all-too-abundant stone. Dún Aengus on Inis Mór, part of the Aran Islands in County Galway, was just such a fort. It was built possibly in the 2nd Century B.C. at the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. In some locations, its walls are four meters wide. The outermost walls enclose fourteen acres.

Some now suggest a religious or ceremonial purpose for Dún Aengus. And surely, a bonfire on the hilltop, set alight on Beltane eve—when the druids said the spirits of the Otherworld were closest—could be seen for miles from the mainland. But why such a massive structure only for ceremony, and not for defense?

Mystery Upon Mystery

What went on inside these huge stone enclosures? Were they the abode of kings? Did the druids build them to hold their dark ceremonies? Were they merely cattle enclosures? Or was their purpose mainly for defense?

Sources for this post: Wikipedia, http://www.mythicalireland.com/ancientsites/, and Pagan Celtic Ireland by Barry Raftery.

Next time we’ll conclude our look at the mystery of ancient Irish ringforts, with Part II.