The Carnyx – A Celtic War-Horn

This is a Carnyx, a Gaulish War-Horn, modelled upon the beautiful example found at Tintignac in the Occitan region of France (well, Corrèze – but linguistically…) .

Specifically, the ‘Dragon Headed’ find – there were several other at least partial examples of the instrument at the same site featuring Boar or Serpent crafted bells; buried at what appears to have been the site of a Gaulish temple.

We also have identifiably similar elements attested from other sites and depictions found pretty much right across the Celtic sphere – and not just in the form of actual finds of the horns themselves (or pieces thereof), but portrayals of them upon other artefacts as well.

In some cases, as with the famed Gundestrup Cauldron, what we see appears to be a story that the Celts (although we must note the Thracian workmanship) wished to tell about themselves. There, a troupe of Carnyx players seem to urge on a cohort of shield-and-spear armed warriors to what seems to be a scene of death-and-rebirth.

In other cases, as with Roman coinage and other such things, it is a case of peoples who were in contact with the Celts choosing to feature the Carnyx as something pretty indelibly, identifiably ‘Celtic’.

Given the broad-ranging occurrences of the Celts – whether as peoples, or as bands of soldiers (mercenary or otherwise), the really quite wide distribution of these renderings is entirely unsurprising.

Although that being said – when it comes to some of the supposed exemplars of such depiction to be found in further Central Asia etc. one does, perhaps, begin to wonder whether academics are getting a bit over-enthusiastic and declaring what could quite easily be rather more local Indo-European tall and curved horns to be trenchant evidence for far-wandering Celtic encounters.

We are certainly aware of examples from within the Hindusphere that are rather unlikely to be of Celtic provenancy (not least because they’re in-use quite some centuries after the era in question, amidst the Himalayas – see William Simpson’s beautiful depiction of the Goddess (Devi) worship at Kothi, for instance. Which we had written about last year in ‘Goddess Worship At Devi Kothi – An Expansion From William Simpson’s Painting And Journalistic Portrayal’).

That said, it cannot be doubted that the association of the Carnyx with the Celt is an irreducibly prominent one. After all, even beyond their use as a sort of ‘iconographic shorthand’ in carvings, there seems to be an intriguing co-occurrence of Carnyx depictions alongside the Goddess Gallia. I intend to return to revisit this at some later point in time.

Now, many cultures have their own rather distinctive musical instruments – and various of these have often found themselves also deployed upon the fields of war, whether for the purposes of morale-boosting, psychological shock-factor, or innovative approaches to issuing orders.

Indeed, the somewhat spiritual descendant of the Carnyx, the bagpipes, continued to see active front-line service (with casualty-rates to match) right into the mid-20th century (indeed, under English law they quite literally had the status of being weapons up until relatively recently).

Yet other than those aforementioned bagpipes, I find it difficult to think of another occurrence wherein a musical instrument of military saliency has become so indelibly linked to its bearer-people.

This is, perhaps, because it evidently made such an impression upon those others who were doing the writing about them at the time.

Diodorus Siculus, for instance, makes a passing reference of their exoticism in amidst a catalogue of other details that had seemed rather remarkable (if not outright intimidating) about the Celts:

“Their trumpets are of peculiar nature and such as barbarians use, for when they are blown upon they give forth a harsh sound, appropriate to the tumult of war.”
[V 30, Oldfather translation]

Polybius, in his Histories [II 29], gives some indication of their usage whilst detailing the battle of Telamon in 225 BC:

“It was surely a peculiar and surprising battle to witness, and scarcely less so to hear described. A battle, to begin with, in which three distinct armies were engaged, must have presented a strange and unusual appearance, and must have been fought under strange and unusual conditions. Again, it must have seemed to a spectator open to question, whether the position of the Gauls were the most dangerous conceivable, from being between two attacking forces; or the most favourable, as enabling them to meet both armies at once, while their own two divisions afforded each other a mutual support: and, above all, as putting retreat out of the question, or any hope of safety except in victory. For this is the peculiar advantage of having an army facing in two opposite directions. The Romans, on the other hand, while encouraged by having got their enemy between two of their own armies, were at the same time dismayed by the ornaments and clamour of the Celtic host. For there were among them such innumerable horns and trumpets, which were being blown simultaneously in all parts of their army, and their cries were so loud and piercing, that the noise seemed not to come merely from trumpets and human voices, but from the whole country-side at once. Not less terrifying was the appearance and rapid movement of the naked warriors in the van, which indicated men in the prime of their strength and beauty: while all the warriors in the front ranks were richly adorned with gold necklaces and bracelets. These sights certainly dismayed the Romans; still the hope they gave of a profitable victory redoubled their eagerness for the battle.”
[Shuckburgh translation]

In any case, it remains a singularly impressive instrument – and one that it occurs one must have had to possess some noteworthy physical capacity in order to not only be able to blow and play the thing at such volume and endurance, but also to be able to move and maneuver whilst holding all of that bronze heavily aloft whilst doing so.

As applies naming – ‘Carnyx’ is, itself, a Classical term of reference.

The name itself, as you might imagine, means rather directly, a ‘Horn’ – from PIE *ḱerh₂- (which means just exactly that) – the Gaulish word would likely have been ‘Carn’ or perhaps ‘Carnon’.

Very cool to see – or, perhaps, to hear – one in action again, echoing millennia later !

2 thoughts on “The Carnyx – A Celtic War-Horn

  1. Pingback: The Carnyx – A Celtic War-Horn – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. Pingback: The Carnyx – A Celtic War-Horn — arya-akasha | Vermont Folk Troth

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