Yes, It’s Saint Patrick’s Day

Image of Saint Patrick's Bell, Armagh, Ireland

Saint Patrick’s Bell

As a Celticist, I have an abiding interest in Irish culture, and around March 17, so, apparently, does most of the United States. I’ve written a rant about Irish cultural myths, I’ve written about the true place of corned beef in terms of Irish culture, genuinely Irish food, like Irish Soda Bread, colcannon, Guinness, and Irish Whisky, and even Irish loan words in English, and the real nature of Leprechauns.

All of that said St. Patrick seems to have been a fifth century Romano-Britain, a speaker of a language closely related to Welsh, before he became the national saint of Ireland.

Vindolanda Altar to Jupiter Dolichenus

Jupiter-Dolichenus-altar-Vindolanda_frontThis past July a Roman altar dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus was discovered in the excavations of the former Roman fort Vindolanda. Vindolanda is near modern Chesterholm, England, just south of Hadrian’s Wall. The altar, weighing roughly 1.5 tons, is carved stone. One side bears a relief image of a jar and a patera, a shallow dish frequently used in religious rituals involving sacrifice. The opposite side depects a male figure in Roman clothing standing on the back of a bull. He bears a thunderbolt in one hand, and a battle axe in the other. A third side bears an inscription in Latin. The text reads:


Sulpicius Pu
dens praef
coh IIII Gall
V. S. L. M.

Jupiter-Dolichenus-altar-VindolandaThe inscription uses standard abbreviations and dedicates the altar to “To Jupiter Best and Greatest of Doliche, Sulpicius Pudens, prefect of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls, fulfilled his vow gladly and deservedly.”

What’s particularly interesting about this altar is that it is inside the walls of the fort proper, in an area that might conceivably have been a shrine, rather than in or on the exterior walls, as is common all along the forts and guard posts associated with Hadrian’s Wall.After preliminary excavation, the bottom half of a second alter was discovered, suggesting that there may have been a more formal shrine. The second altar was dedicated to Dolichenus by a prefect of the Second Cohort of Nervians, a Vindolanda regiment that later moved to the fort at Whitley Castle in the third century. There were animal remains as well, which suggests that there may have formal sacrifices and feasts in the vicinity.

We know from the Vindolanda tablets that Sulpicius Pudens was the commanding officer of the Roman regiment stationed in Vindolanda during the third century C.E. It would have been fairly typical for Sulpicius Pudens to have had the altar created and dedicated to the deity in fulfillment of an oath. It would also appear that this is the same Pudens who dedicated a smaller altar on another wall of the fort.

The Romans enlisted soldiers from all over the empire and those men tended to bring their gods with them, and adapt the local deities as well. Jupiter Dolichenus was a deity that Romans in Anatolia adopted; there, he is associated with a hill outside the Turkish town of Dülük, (then known as Doliche). He began to be popular among Roman soldiers stationed nearby during the beginning of the second century C.E. From Duluk, the soldiers carried him all over the empire—leaving hundreds of inscriptions and altars dedicated to him. In Anatolia, Dolichenus was a deity associated with weather, known to the local Semitic speakers as Hadad, and to the Indo-European Hittites as Teshab. The sobriquet “Jupiter” was added by Roman worshipers who identified Dolichenus as an avatar of Jupiter.

You can find more here and here. There are several other altars, and stone building inscriptions at Vindolanda, but nothing as dramatic as this.


image of the Cocidius figureThe BBC Web site is reporting the discovery of a 2000 year old carving of the British warrior-god Cocidius on Hadrian’s Wall, in Northumberland near Chester’s Fort. The language of the article, and of articles on the Web, implies that this “northern god,” as the BBC puts it, was Germanic. The carving, as you can sort of tell from the image, shows a figure with a shield in his outstretched left hand, and a sword or spear in his right; the sort of deity you’d expect Romans stationed in the cold hinterlands of Northumbria to favor.

Cocidius is quite Celtic, and is in fact, British or Brythonic. His name contains the word coch, still the word for red in Welsh today. This isn’t the only image of Cocidius; he was quite popular, especially with Romans. In the East, around Hadrian’s wall, he was associated with forests, and hunting. There’s an inscription to him at the old Roman fort in Ebchester (known to the Romans as Vindomara) that refers to him as Cocidius VERNOSTONUS, or “alder tree.” An altar in Risingham shows him hunting against a backdrop of trees (Green, Miranda. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. Thames and Hudson, 1992. 62).

In North and West Cumbria Cocidius was closely associated with the Roman god Mars. There are dedications to him at the old Roman fort of Birdoswald. At Bewcastle two silver repousse placques, complete with inscription, show Cocidius with spear and shield. There’s a reference in the Ravenna Cosmography to a fanum Cocidi that’s almost certainly Cocidius (Green, 62).

It’s quite possible that many of the unnamed deities along Hadrian’s Wall featuring hunting scenes, sometimes with horns, or the warrior with spear /sword and shield are Cocidius.

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Wel koude he knowe a draughte of Londoun ale

The ThamesPilot project is a cooperative effort from libraries and museums along the Thames river. The British Library and the ThamesPilot project have combined resources to create Image of a monk quaffing from manuscript BL Sloane_2435_f.44van archive about the history and cultures of the Thames river. Thames Riverside Pubs is one of their efforts. An attractive, browseable presentation, it offers a history of ale drinking and brewing in England, a history of pubs, and inns, and hostelryes, especially along the Thames, from the Roman era to today. There’s lots of interesting historical information about pub culture, and about brewing. The tour is image-rich and a useful resource for medievalists teaching about Chaucer, or for pretty much any literary/historical era. There’s a Flash version and a non-Flash version. (via Peter Scott’s Library Blog).

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The Perfect Corpse: Nova on Bog Bodies

Yes, it’s tonight, and no, I hadn’t heard about it before. But PBS’s science show Nova is airing a documentary on bog bodies, featuring Tollund man, described on the program’s web site as “the most famous bog body of all” (he isn’t). The Nova shows usually repeat so I expect there will be other opportunities.

Two New Irish Bog Bodies

Both the BBC and the Mirror have articles about two “new” bog bodies. This has been a year for bog body announcements, apparently. The two bodies were found in 2003, the first was discovered in February of 2003 when a male torso fell off a peat harvesting machine in Clonycavan, near Dublin. The forearms, hands and lower abdomen are missing, probably damaged by the peat cutter. The second body, also male, was discovered in a bog 25 miles away in Croghan, Ireland. The details are being released now, prior to being featured in BBC Television’s BBC2 program Timewatch: The Bog Bodies is on BBC2 on Friday, January 20.

Radiocarbon dating suggests both men died around 2,300 years ago. The BBC reports that Old Croghan man was in his early to mid 20s, and, based on the length of his arms, around 6ft 6in tall. He had been tortured, which supports the conclusion that he was a sacrificial victim, and probably not willing; a cut on his arm suggests that he tried to defend himself before he was beheaded and dismembered, and his arms bound with hazel ropes before he was cast into the bog. His stomach contained the remains of his last meal—milk and cereals, while chemical analysis of his nails suggests a diet that included meat.

The BBC says of the other body that:

Clonycavan man was a young male no more than 5ft 2in tall. Beneath his hair, which retains its unusual “raised” style, was a massive wound caused by heavy cutting object that smashed open his skull.

Chemical analysis of the hair showed that Clonycavan man’s diet was rich in vegetables in the months leading up to his death, suggesting he died in summer.

It also revealed that he had been using a type of Iron Age hair gel; a vegetable plant oil mixed with a resin that had probably come from south-western France or Spain.

It’s the hairstyle of the Clonycavan body that I’m most interested in. The comments about the “raised” style, and the resin-based hair gel reminded me of this bit from Diordorus Siculus, who wrote c. 60–30 B. C. E.:

The Gauls are very tall with white skin and blond hair, not only blond by nature but more so by the artificial means they use to lighten their hair. For they continually wash their hair in a lime solution, combing it back from the forehead to the back of the neck. This process makes them resemble Satrys and Pans since this treatment makes the hair thick like a horse’s mane.

(Diodorus Siculus 5: 28. Trans. Phillip Freeman in The Celtic Heroic Age. Eds. John T. Koch and John Carey. 2nd ed. Maldon, MA: Celtic Studies Publications, 1995. 11).

The “raised” style, particularly one that’s encouraged by the application of lime or a resin based “mousse” would result in the sorts of hair style one sees on Celtic coins, like this British coin from the Iceni.

image of a coin from the Iceni, showing a head with spiky hair

British coin of the Iceni coin c. CE 61

It’s the same general kind of treated, stylized hair on the head of the Dying Gaul statue (a late Roman copy of a bronze from Pergamon).

The Dying Gaul  Rome Capitoline Museum

The Dying Gaul
Rome Capitoline Museum

Clonycavan’s hair style matches the descriptions of hair in the Táin, like the description of Cú: Chulainn’s hair during his rístarthae or “warp-spasm” in his battle-frenzy from the version in Leabhar na h-Uidhri / The Book of the Dun Cow as translated by Cecile O’Rahilly:

His hair curled about his head like branches of red hawthorn used to re-fence a gap in a hedge. If a noble apple-tree weighed down with fruit had been shaken about his hair, scarcely one apple would have reached the ground through it, but an apple would have stayed impaled on each separate hair because of the fierce bristling of his hair above his head (LU 2270–74).

A New Bog Body: “The Girl of the Uchter Moor”

There are a number of well-known bog bodies; the most recent, and the one we have the best data on, is Lindow Man. But recently a body was found in a peat bog in in the town of Uchte, in Lower Saxony (that’s in the northern part of Germany). Peat bogs are now mined with heavy machinery which remove blocks of peat for fuel. That means that bog finds, usually the remnants of Iron Age sacrifices, of humans as well as objects, are damaged. In this case, the bog has given up the preserved body of a young girl between 16 and 20, committed to the bog about 650 BC, earlier than both Lindow Man (between AD 20 and 90) and Denmark’s Tollund man (c. 350 B. C.).

The full article about “The Girl of the Uchter Moor,” as journalists are already calling this latest bog body, is here; there’s a lot more data to come, I’m sure. It’s a shame the body is in pieces—nonetheless, we might still learn how she died, whether she was killed as a sacrifice, and perhaps data about how she lived, based on things like her tooth enamel and clothing.

Philological Public Service Announcement

Beowulf is in Old English. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is in Middle English.

Every fall, and then again every spring, as various colleges and universities begin their semesters, I see a dramatic increase in the number of people visiting my site after using search phrases like:

  • canterbury tales in old english
  • general prologue old english
  • chaucer old english
  • chaucer angled saxon
  • chaucer anglo-saxon

Old English requires some special effort to read and understand; it really is a different language. Middle English is much closer to our own Modern English, albeit with funny spelling. You can get a good idea of how different Old and Middle English are by looking at the Lord’s Prayer in Middle and Old English. You can hear some Chaucer read in Middle English here, and some Beowulf in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) here. If you’re curious about learning Old English, take a look at Michael Drout’s nicely done King Alfred’s Grammar Book, and Catherine Ball’s Old English Pages. For those interested in learning more about Middle English and Chaucer, take a look at Larry Benson’s site.

But remember: Chaucer wrote in Middle English.

Beunans Ke Update

If Sara Zettle sent you, I’m especially pleased that I can tell you there’s more news about the medieval Cornish mystery play fragment rediscovered in 2000. Thanks to Alan Hawke, I can tell you that the National Library of Wales has added high quality digital images of both the Beunans Ke manuscript NLW MS 23849D and the Beunans Meriasek manuscript Peniarth 105B, to their Digital Mirror collection. Andrew Hawke adds that Michael Polkinhorn has provided a collaborative translation online here.

Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte

Thanks to Andy Kelly; I know it’s not really Valentines day yet. But a lot of people still think it’s today that Chaucer had in mind when he wrote:

“Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte;—
Thus singen smale foules for thy sake—
Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres weders over-shake.

“Wel han they cause for to gladen ofte,
Sith ech of hem recovered hath his make;
Ful blisful may they singen whan they wake;
Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres weders over-shake,
And driven away the longe nightes blake.”

And with the showting, whan hir song was do,
That foules maden at hir flight a-way,
I wook, and other bokes took me to
To rede upon, and yet I rede alway;
In hope, y-wis, to rede so som day
That I shal mete som thing for to fare
The bet; and thus to rede I nil not spare.
(Chaucer Parlement of Foulys ll. 683–699)