Island of Old Ghosts

Weekly Photo Challenge: Eerie

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There are ancient, bloody-minded spirits here on Ynys Môn, the island where the Celtic druids made their last stand during the Roman conquest of Britain. This place, otherwise known by its Viking name of Anglesey, lies just off the coast of Wales, the narrow Menai Straits between. One Christmas morning we came here to Penmon on the island’s north-east tip. The light was very strange that day, darkness already gathering at noon. Then across the Straits, above the mainland, the sun bore down like a searchlight.

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Penmon is the site of an early Christian monastery, founded in the 6th century by St Seiriol, but the roots Ynys Môn’s sacred, and now mysterious practices, are far older than this. Across the island there are Neolithic and Bronze Age chambered tombs, and then there is the spectacular Celtic Iron Age hoard from Llyn Cerrig Bach, a seemingly sacrificial lake offering of weapons, chariots, slave chains, and highly crafted regalia. The Romans claimed that in their groves the druid priests made human sacrifices, but little is known of these people beyond the gory account in the Annals of Tacitus. What is known is that the Romans conducted a ruthless campaign against the Celtic clans of Wales. Anglesey, with its powerful druid priests, was the last bastion of British resistance. Here is how Tacitus describes the Menai Straits battle of nearly 2,000 years ago. Suetonius Paulinus, Governor of Britain, was in command.

“He therefore prepared to attack the island of Mona which had a powerful population and was a refuge for fugitives. He built flat-bottomed vessels to cope with the shallows, and uncertain depths of the sea. Thus the infantry crossed, while the cavalry followed by fording, or, where the water was deep, swam by the side of their horses.

“On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds. Then urged by their general’s appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance, and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was next set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed. They deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails.”

Annals of Tacitus translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb 1884.  XIV chapters 29-30. You can read the original work by following the link.

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22 thoughts on “Island of Old Ghosts

    1. Yes, Tacitus could well be laying it on a bit. On the other hand when one warrior force with nothing to lose meets another warrior force desperate to win…And human sacrifice could well have been part of Celtic practice…The past is definitely a “foreign country”.

  1. Yesterday I was at the lake near our house and wrote the Bob Dylan lyrics in my notepad, “Darkness at the break of noon.” Caught a clip of that in your post here too, though unrelated (or how can you say that? It’s all related!). Loved this. – Bill

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