What the Celts Did For Us
The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe
By Graham Robb (Picador 366pp £20)
Graham Robb's new book has a remarkable opening. Taken unawares in his quiet Oxfordshire cottage, he is visited not by a person from Porlock, but by something quite the reverse: an idea so urgent and striking that it upturns his life and inspires his work. So vivid, indeed, that he speculates, 'it would not have been surprising if some chronic state of historic hallucination had taken hold'.
Robb is planning a cycling trip along the Via Heraclea, 'the fabled route of Hercules from the ends of the earth' - actually from the southwest tip of the Iberian peninsula, over the Pyrenees and on towards the Alps. But a chance discovery suddenly gives his journey a whole new meaning, as if his GPS has lurched into mythic mode. He learns that his route directly aligns with the angle of the rising sun at the summer solstice. Connecting this fact with the existence of sixty locations between Britain and the Black Sea identified as Mediolanum - a Latin-Celtic conflation loosely meaning 'sanctuary in the midst of the plain', related to the 'Middle Earth' of myth - Robb realises he has stumbled on an extraordinary story: 'A complex, beautiful pattern of lines emerged, based on solar alignments and elementary Euclidean geometry. I began to see, as though in some miraculously preserved document, the ancient birth of modern Europe.'
Why has no one seen this before? Robb's answer is simple: they did not have access to the digital maps and mapping software that allowed him to open up this unknown world. The results threaten to overturn our preconceptions about an ancient people, especially those bequeathed by Roman propaganda. Far from being the primitive, woad-wearing, naked warriors portrayed by Caesar, the Celts - or their constituent tribes - had a cohesive, transcontinental culture, linked by routes that were long and straight well before the Romans came on the scene. These were created from exacting surveys using the sun's position and beacons lit on hills, which allowed measurements of huge areas of the landscape. Thus one British king, Belinus, could order a causeway to be built across the breadth of his kingdom, from Maeldun (Maldon) in Essex to Menevia (St David's) in Wales, running through Oxford, another Mediolanum.
long these highways ran state-of-the-art chariots, with wide-angle steering and suspended chassis worthy of a modern Porsche - all set upon 'tiny, twisted metal colonettes that seemed to flaunt their gravity-defying frailty' - four hundred years before the Romans came to Gaul. Equally sophisticated was the Celtic communication network - a vocal telegraph akin to Alpine yodelling, capable of transmitting messages at a speed of 24 kilometres an hour. Robb speculates that the Gauls used a monosyllabic code, like modern computers, 'with repetitions and set phrases to avoid misinterpretations, and the trained lungs of warriors, male and female'.
But it is Robb's evocation of Celtic people themselves that really brings the story to life. The Greeks and Romans found the trousered Gauls and their dangling moustaches bad enough; when they took off their trousers matters got worse. 'Gaulish men rolled about in bed with other men, "raging with outlandish lust", and it was considered highly offensive if a guest declined to sodomize his host.' However, Robb points out that these were exaggerations of Celtic hospitality and the 'friendly custom of sharing one's bed with a stranger' (Abraham Lincoln often did the same).
Slaughter and spirituality make equally odd bedfellows. In the eerie, druidical world of the 'Cult of the Severed Head', Celtic forest chapels were adorned with human hearts dripping blood and a 'partially eviscerated man nailed to planks of wood'. Little wonder, as Robb writes, that 'all that separates Celtic from Christian religion is a change of clothes and gender'. Mother goddesses became the Virgin Mary, and Ogmios, the Celtic Hercules, his 'Christian avatar', St Christopher. Meanwhile, sacred emblems of oak and mistletoe were repeated in the curlicues of Celtic metalwork, jewellery and sculpture. Most powerful of all are the geometric interlinking circles that create an oval between them as they connect, demonstrating a mathematical logic at the root of druid science, but which Robb also sees as a symbolic vulva, emblematic of those mother goddesses and the 'portal through which every human being passes'.
Such knowledge was disseminated through druidical 'universities', with twenty-year courses melding supernatural myth with natural science and mathematics, some of it derived from Greek learning (Pythagoras being a vital source). As a result, druid priests were so revered that women as well as men had the power to straddle battle lines and persuade entire warring tribes to disband in peace.
As Robb pedals his way through this palimpsest of a perpetually surprising Celtic landscape, much is uncovered by happenstance: 'As so often, an archaeological discovery seemed to make a mockery of historians.' From the waters off Rhodes emerges something minute and shocking from an ancient shipwreck: a gear wheel with bronze teeth, less than two millimetres long, able to calculate solar and lunar eclipses, more 'hand-held computer' than primitive artefact, 'an almost alien presence in that world of brute force and basic machinery'. Such discoveries remind me of the artefacts found on the Mary Rose, newly displayed in Portsmouth's Naval Dockyard, among them many pocket sundials, complete with mirrors, which were 16th-century versions of wristwatches (a watery finding that also evokes, for me, another druidical link: Melville's Billy Budd, whose sacrificial victim's name drew on the Celtic god of victorious death, Beli, and the sun god, Budd).
Robb's deft investigations take him deep into Iron Age forests, 'impervious to the passage of time', following the symbolic 'sun-horses' on Celtic coins, retracing their tribal migrations back into Asia and forward to a European diaspora, with a final stand in Britain (the name itself derives from the Celtic 'Pritani', its Indo-European root meaning 'to cut' or 'to shape'). This dramatic retreat gives Robb his exciting climax, here in the Celts' last holdfast, before Christianity erased their distinctive culture.
The Ancient Paths is an overarching, wondrous reworking of history rooted in painstaking, if not obsessive, research. And if its fantastical connections and arcane details leave the reader reeling, perhaps that is merely a reflection of the astounding complexity and continuing mystery of a lost civilisation that Graham Robb has restored to its rightful place.
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Philip Hoare's The Sea Inside is published by Fourth Estate. He is the senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Southampton University.