The Celts have arrived at Bagni di Lucca to celebrate the festival of Beltane! Tribes from the northern part of the peninsula have made their camp in the commune’s Parco Pubblico.
Tents, bonfires and stalls have appeared, varieties of flutes are on sale and other ritual objects are on show. Fortunately, only animal sacrifices are promised.
This druid has received his learning from the Celts who inhabit the northern islands of Great Britain and Ireland.
He proudly showed me his model of the inner circle of Stonehenge which his forebears have constructed.
Of course, as a druid he has the right to enter the inner sanctum of this greatest of European prehistoric monuments on the year’s longest day.
Lesser mortal may not tread within Stonehenge’s rigorously protected area although I note from my very early family photographs that it was once possible for everyone to do so, even with their pet dachshunds. How times have changed!
What are the Celts doing in Bagni anyway? Don’t they live in northern Europe? They do now, pushed back into those remote parts of Europe Ireland, Wales, Scotland Cornwall and Brittany by persistent Roman conquests in the sixth century. Celts, however, originated in the mountains of present-day Austria where a magnificent culture, called Hallstatt after the area it was located, flourished.
Here some example of handiwork from that civilization. As you can see, they were also horse worshippers.
By the sixth century BC Celtic culture has reached its widest extent covering much of Europe including Italy where major settlements were founded in the Veneto region, in the Po valley and, nearer to us, in Liguria.
Golasecca at the lower end of Lake Maggiore was a major Celtic settlement and acted as a bridge between Hallstatt and Etruscan culture. The salt imported from Austria mines (which can be visited to this day) provided Golasecca’s wealth. Milan itself was founded by the Celts who managed to defeat the Romans at the battle of Alia. Indeed, the Celtic tribe of the Cenones sacked Rome in 390 BC.
The decline of the Italian Celts started in 225 BC when the Roman army defeated a considerable Celtic armed force at the battle of Talamone. From then on the Romans grew from strength to strength defeating the Celtic, Etruscan and Samnite alliance in the third Samnite war. By 192 BC the last independent Celtic kingdom in Italy was defeated by Rome’s crushing power. With that defeat the Celtic language in Italy was superseded by Latin, meeting the same fate as Etruscan.
Today Celtic languages are spoken only in the north western reaches of Europe where they are divided into two groups: Celtic A in Scotland and Ireland, Celtic B in Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man and Brittany. Celtic B is particularly widespread in Wales where it is the first language in many areas. Truly it’s the “iaith paradwys”, the language of heaven, particularly suited to song and poetry – a tongue, not easy to master but one which I have studied and learnt to love.
Welsh continues to flourish today partly because of its ability to incorporate words from other languages. For example, the Romans who sought to conquer the principality in order to extract gold from its rocks and rivers gave it such words as “Pont” for bridge (c.f. Italian “ponte”) and “eglwys” for church (c.f. Italian “Chiesa and our “ecclesiastical”).
Here is something I wrote regarding the presence of Rome in the proud land of the Welsh Celtic tribes:
We can see you on this crispy blue late
October day walking through our mountains
on steps you call Roman. That far-flung state,
once the world’s imperial master, maintains
it set the route. But we showed those Romans
the way: they just built the road and Goth slaves
did the hard work: broke rocks non-humans
forged in canyons and caves, and cut the staves.
They had heard about our superfine gold
and, eager to bedeck their Lucretias and Fabiolas
and the Emperor’s favourite mistress, sold
us in search of the largest fistulas.
Resplendent metal from these desert crags
at Claudius’ limits of domination
adorned the eternal city’s marble flags
and shone on southern imagination.
We return into the dark stones and rocks
of this wind-swept heather-clad wilderness
and let him who, laughing, denies or mocks
our lives feel this region’s winter coldness.
By herds of goats and swirling falcons
they may sense that worth which comes not from men
but from the planet: not from false icons
But from the sky and the earth’s long amen.
I don’t know how many Celtic words there are in Italian but certainly Celtic culture is enjoying a revival in northern Italy where many inhabitants show the characteristic Celtic DNA feature of blond hair and blue eyes.
Incidentally, Otzi, the famous alpine frozen man was an early Celt and, interestingly, showed a characteristic Celtic custom of tattooing, something which has been revived in recent times as the beautiful tattoo decoration on the back of this latter-day Celtic maiden yesterday at Bagni di Lucca demonstrates.
We are in modern-day Italy and so every event has to finish with a big eatery. Yesterday evening, tables were spread out in the piazza by the town hall and porchetta (sucking pig) was served with beer. The diners were serenaded by a Celtic harp player and actors. The same will be repeated tonight.
The festival continues today so if you’re in the area don’t miss it. Here’s a rare chance to celebrate Beltane (Celtic for luminous fire) otherwise known as the Gaelic May Day festival where fire is worshipped and where walking on hot coals takes place!
By the way, isn’t nearby Cerreto’s Baldoria, celebrated fifteen days after Easter, another take on ancient Celtic fire festivals? (See my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/04/mayhem-in-cerreto/ if you want to know more about that event.)