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Iron Age Celts: Drinking & Banquets
I. The Problem of the Trinkfest and its Derivation
II. The Greek Symposium
III. Celtic Drinking in Context

The "Celtic" Drinking Banquet

"Celtic" drunkenness is a favorite topos of classical authors; much fascinated description is devoted to "Celtic" feasts (see Rankin 1987/1996; Herm 1976). Barbarians and "others" are of course generically prone to drunkenness and dissolution, setting them apart from the civilized world, but at least some of the descriptions of drinking "Celts" recorded by Strabo, Diodorus and Polybius appear to be founded on actual observation.

Excavations have brought to light both isolated flagons or cups and enormous sets of banqueting vessels, including cauldrons, smaller basins, plates, bowls, carving knives, flagons, and drinking horns. With the exception of rare settlement finds (e.g., at the Heuneburg) and a few stray finds without contexts, such as the Basse-Yutz flagons, these vessels were found in tombs.

Vix: Krater

Our two classes of information, classical authors and archaeological finds, together paint an evocative picture of "Celts" at banquet. Even allowing for the exaggeration common to classical depictions of the larger-than-life barbarians, it must have been a prodigious sight. Enormous vessels like the Hochdorf cauldron or the Vix krater, even if not filled to capacity with mead or wine, attest to the immense scale and sumptuousness of some of these banquets. Cauldrons, platters and knives suggest the preparation and consumption of food. Tripods and suspended cauldrons may have been used in cooking, but it is also possible that the "Celts" consumed their alcoholic beverages heated, in the Italian fashion (Dunbabin 1993). Eating utensils there were none, bearing out Poseidonios's observation of "Celtic" eating habits as "cleanly but leonine" (in Athenaeus IV.36). The beverage -- wine, whether mixed or unmixed, mead or beer -- was brought to the diners in flagons and decanted into the individual drinking vessels, which were usually drinking horns made of natural horn or, rarely, metal and decorated with gold foil bands. Other vessels were local or imported cups or bowls. Where a situla, or bucket, contained the beverage, a handled cup or ladle was used to transfer the liquid.

Only one "Celtic" tomb, that at Hochdorf, contains a piece of furniture. The chieftain's couch somewhat resembles north Italian chairs and is clearly meant to be sat on. Fragments of inlay from the burial at Grafenbühl have been reconstructed to form the front of one leg of a wooden Greek kline; this interpretation is less than assured, since other items, thrones or boxes, could have been inlaid in the same manner. In addition, there is no indication of how these pieces of furniture were used, since both were found in tomb contexts. There is thus no archaeological evidence to contradict the image the classical authors provide of banqueting "Celts" sitting on the ground, cushioned by dried plants or animal furs (Athenaeus IV.36; IV.40).

This brief ethnographical excursus has a place in a study of "Celtic" art because of the presence of Mediterranean imports among the banquet vessels. These imports have been cited in various reconstructions of the "Celtic" banquet as an imitation of the Greek symposion (Krauße 1993; Schaaf 1988). The typically "Celtic" elements of the banquet service, then, such as the drinking horns, are interpreted as further expressions of that emulation. In Krauße's careful formulation of his conclusions about the Kleinaspergle burial, for example,

While the bronze vessels and the Attic drinking cups confirm the adoption of the Mediterranean symposium (possibly including the playing of kottabos), the inclusion of the two drinking horns can be explained most convincingly as a simultaneous adoption of the komos. (note; 1996, 224).

The suggestion is that the "Celts" imported certain luxury vessels because of their use in Greek symposia, in order to imitate those symposia in the "Celtic" lands, and that with the objects they also imported the associated ideas, values and customs. At the same time, the "Celtic" artisans were supposedly inspired and encouraged to imitate the motifs and styles or the imported drinking vessels, hence the "Hellenization" of late Hallstatt-early La Tène art.

In keeping with my argument for the autochthonous and anti-classical nature of "Celtic" art, I submit that the "Celtic" banqueting sets and the classical sources do not support the "Hellenization" model of "Celtic" drinking. Instead, vessels found in funerary contexts tell us primarily about the assemblage deemed necessary and desirable for inclusion in a tomb and possibly for use in the afterlife (Bouloumié 1988, 378), and cannot be assumed to reflect conditions and usage in life. In addition, the drinking habits of the "Celts" were determined by local considerations and do not reveal adoption of any essential aspects of the Greek symposion [II]. Finally, the imported drinking vessels were not only adapted for use with "Celtic" beverages and in "Celtic" banquets, but they were often physically altered in a way that made them more "Celtic" and less Greek in character. The drinking party or Trinkfest, as I shall call it in preference to the inaccurate designation of "symposion," should, I argue, be studied and interpreted in its local and regional context and not as an indicator of "Hellenization" [III.].

Although the Greek symposion has been exhaustively studied, it is surprising how little of the literature treats its anthropological and cultural aspects. Literary, philosophical, iconographic and religious questions dominate modern studies. Murray's magisterial Sympotica proceedings represent one of the few exceptions; the brief outline that follows relies heavily on his volume (1990).

We know about the Greek symposion from three main categories of sources: contemporary literature written for or about the symposion, archaeological finds of architecture and paraphernalia, and representations in art.

Symposiasts on 2 klinai, musician

Plato's and Xenophon's Symposia, the many philosophical dialogues, poems and odes that take place at symposia, all present the symposion as a structured event with specific rules and conventions. The setting is indoor and formal; in a private home, the andron is the room reserved for the use of the men of the household and their guests. The layout of an andron is governed by the need to accommodate the diners on their klinai. (Bergquist 1990). Far from squatting on the ground, the Greeks recline on elaborate klinai or couches made of wood and covered with soft mattresses and textiles; the top of the kline is flat with an elevation at one end for the left elbow. It is the same piece of furniture that is often depicted in other contexts as the marriage bed or the deathbed, and is thus freighted with liminal and symbolic significance in Greek iconography. The symposiasts recline two to a kline and the company is strictly male, except for servants, slaves, hetairai and entertainers.

Greeks drink wine mixed with water in large vessels such as two-handled kraters; the strength of the wine, amount and order of drinking are determined by a leader among the drinkers (symposiarch). The consumption of wine in symposion is separated from the eating of food, which seems not to have been so highly ritualized. In addition to professional entertainment, the banqueters themselves provide music and song. Prayers are offered up, poetry is performed, and, if we are to believe the ancient authors, philosophy is discussed at length. As the party progresses, sexual liaisons may take place. After a great deal of wine has been consumed, the men and their entourage parade through the streets in a drunken procession or komos.

Tomb of the Diver, Paestum

Specific aspects of the symposion are reflected in the archaeological record. Andra and public dining facilities have been excavated and studied. The entire range of drinking vessels, vessels for mixing water and wine, for pouring and for ladling, and libation vessels, may be observed in museums and corpora of Greek vases; a few examples in silver and gold have also been preserved. The iconography of much of Greek vase painting is concerned with the symposion, the god Dionysos and his followers the maenads and satyrs, the production of wine, erotic activities, and the komos. Large numbers of south-Italian vase paintings depict symposiasts playing kottabos -- flinging the dregs of their wine at a target. A distinctive group of stone reliefs depicts a man reclining on a kline, often with a drinking vessel in hand; a woman may sit beside the kline or at its foot. In the case of the vase paintings it is unclear whether a normal aristocratic symposion, a banquet among heroes or gods, a state-sponsored banquet or one held on a religious occasion is taking place, and the reliefs have been interpreted as representing the funeral banquet (Dentzer 1982).

It is clear that the symposia described by the classical authors and depicted in classical art are quite different from the feasts described in Homer. As has often been pointed out, the "Celtic" Trinkfest bears clear similarities to the Homeric banquet scenes. Men, warriors all, feast outdoors in makeshift surroundings. Prodigious amounts of meat are eaten, with great attention paid to the distribution of portions. Women are not entirely absent. Conversation in the circle turns easily to boasting and insults, often with violent results. This picture of an unruly revel could not be more distinct from the literary symposion of the Classical period in setting, personnel, accoutrements, and structure. In the centuries since the time of the Homeric epics, the Greeks have adopted the oriental practice of reclining to drink. The physical trappings and the conventions by the Classical period have been formalized out of all recognition. Indeed, the Classical symposion may have more in common with a Persian banquet at court than with the carousing of Homer's soldiers (Fehr 1971). Even, or especially, in the period of the Athenian democracy,

"the symposion remained largely a private and aristocratic preserve; but the social attitudes which it existed to promote required public display. This was provided by the komos ... performed in public with the intention of demonstrating the power and lawlessness of the drinking group" (Murray 1990, 150).

Exterior: Athenians in Komos after symposion Interior: after symposion, with hetaira

The ancient authors may not be the most accurate informants on this point, but it does not appear that the "Celtic" Trinkfest ever developed this distinctive combination of "aristocratic social custom and public display of misbehavior" (ibid.). Centuries after the Classical fifth century BCE, none of the accounts we have indicates a corresponding transformation of the Trinkfest into anything resembling the symposion. Nor does archaeology reveal any evidence to that effect. Instead, all evidence points to a "Celtic" feasting tradition much in the style of the warriors's banquets memorialized in the Homeric poems. The European tradition of feasting and drinking together extends back at least to the third millennium BCE, to the time of Europe-wide distribution of the Bell-Beaker cups (Sherratt 1987). The symposion and the Trinkfest each developed out of these early beginnings in its own way, adapting elements imported from elsewhere, but mainly the East, into its local variant. To postulate "Celtic" desire to emulate the Greek symposion requires us to deny the distinct characteristics of the Trinkfest.

It remains to pinpoint the ways in which the artifacts associated with the "Celtic" Trinkfest may be interpreted independently from the model presuming imitation of the Greek symposion.

As noted in [II.], the ancient sources depict "Celtic" drinking habits from subjective points of view. When I make reference to the writings of Strabo, Caesar, Poseidonios, et al., it is with the tacit understanding that these authors are not to be treated as ethnographers in the modern sense. In addition to exaggeration and distortion in the service of literary conventions, their writings are infused with the mindset of their time and milieu, filtering observations and accounts of the "Celtic" barbarians through culture-specific lenses. This does not mean that their testimony is entirely without value; on the contrary, value judgments and expressions of shock or disdain may reveal bias and exaggeration, but could well be based on observation of real differences.

The late date of the preserved sources strongly urges caution in applying Roman-period accounts, however accurate, to the late Hallstatt-early La Tène period of several centuries earlier. Iron Age Europe had been exposed to a new alcoholic beverage, Mediterranean wine, since at least the founding of the Phokaian colony at Massalia in ca. 600 BCE, if not before. Ethnography shows that the introduction of a new drink may have far-reaching effects on the receiving social group (Dietler 1990). Diodoros makes no bones about the consequences in Massalia:

The Gauls are exceedingly addicted to the use of wine and fill themselves with the wine which is brought into their country by merchants, drinking it unmixed, and since they partake of this drink without moderation by reason of their craving for it, when they are drunken they fall into a stupor or a state of madness. Consequently many of the Italian traders, induced by the love of money, which characterizes them, believe that the love of wine of these Gauls is their own godsend. For these transport the wine on the navigable rivers by means of boats and through the level plain on wagons, and receive for it an incredible price; for in exchange for a jar of wine they receive a slave, getting a servant in return for the drink (V.26.3)

The process of "Helleno/Romanization" in the realm of drinking habits has had several generations to make itself felt by the time the ancient authors observe the Trinkfest of their day. According to Strabo (IV.4.6), the unreliable fourth-century BCE historian Ephoros had called the "Celts" "philhellenes." The poet of the first-century BCE Periplus supplies both motive and opportunity for emulation, remarking that

The Celts follow the customs of the Greeks
being on very friendly terms towards Greece
on account of the hospitality of those dwelling abroad (183-7, trans. Freeman)

It is all the more remarkable, then, how very un-Mediterranean the Trinkfests even of Roman-period "Celts" remain. It cannot be literary tradition and convention alone that upheld for over half a millennium the Classical Greek stereotype of the contemporary barbarians as survivals from an earlier primitive age, living as had the Greeks's ancestors in the bygone era of Homer's epics. The Greeks and Romans had had ample opportunity to observe the "Celts" over the years; had the "Celts" adopted the symposion, either as "simple rhabillage à la mode méditerranéene du festin celtique, ou parodie du banquet gr éco- étrusque" (Bouloumié 1988, 375), surely that would have been noted along with other marks of acculturation, such as Strabo claims occurred in Massalia (IV.1.5). Nonetheless, the classical authors continue to be astonished by the, to them, archaic and barbarian character of the Trinkfest. Diodoros, for example, is at pains to point out a "Celtic" feasting tradition that he instantly recognizes, not from the symposion practices of his own day, nor from Classical Greece, but from the mists of the heroic past before the Dark Age (V.28.4):

Brave warriors they reward with the choicest portions of the meat, in the same manner as the poet introduces Ajax as honoured by the chiefs after he returned victorious from his single combat with Hector:
To Ajax then were given of the chine
Slices, full, length, unto his honour [Iliad VII, 321]

This Homeric excursus leads Diodoros to a further observation, wherein he appears to have the guest-host relationships in the Odyssey in mind: "They invite strangers to their feasts, and do not inquire until after the meal who they are and of what things they stand in need." (V.28.5). Waxing Iliadic again, he then notes the violent disputes that often erupt among feasting warriors. The narrative abruptly shifts out of the epic vein into contemporary anthropology: far from sulking in their tents, the "Celtic" warriors instead engage in lethal hand-to-hand combat in true barbarian fashion. In Poseidonios and others we observe the same descriptive method; they couch in Homeric terms aspects of the Trinkfest that remind the authors of ancient Greek legend, but they are not blinded to practices that the "Celts" do very differently, equally fascinated by and eager to convey the strange and barbaric.

From these accounts, the "Celtic" feast's association of food and drink persists long after exposure to the Greek symposion practice of separating the two. "Celts" at dinner are fascinating to observe, in part because of the extravagant moustaches of the aristocrats that "become entangled in the food, and when they are drinking, the beverage passes, as it were, through a kind of strainer" (Diodoros V.28.3). Hygiene aside, "Celtic" table manners were of great interest to Mediterranean observers:

Their food consists of a few loaves of bread, but of large quantities of meat prepared in water or roasted over coals or on spits. This they eat in a cleanly fashion, to be sure, but with a lion-like appetite, grasping the whole joints with both hands and biting them off the bone; if however, any piece proves hard to tear away, they slice it off with a small knife, which lies at hand in its sheath in a special box. (Poseidonios, in Athenaeus IV,151).

The spectacle of "Celts" tearing at their food during feasts suggests that, as late as the first century BCE, they had continued to resist the symposion desideratum of reclining at their banquets. A symposiast may drink from a cup filled and handed to him by an attendant, or use his hands in musical play or in sexual dalliance, but hardly in the strenuous manner of dining described by Poseidonios. Indeed, the authors confirm that the "Celts" feasted while seated on the ground with various forms of cushioning. There is consensus on this point; I have not found a single ancient reference to "Celts" reclining in symposion fashion. Instead, the fact that "Celtic" banqueters sit, what they sit on, and the arrangement of the seated diners, are all objects of minute observation, e.g.:

The Celts place hay on the ground when they serve their meals, which they take on wooden tables raised only slightly from the ground. (...) When several dine together, they sit in a circle; but the mightiest among them, distinguished above the others for skill in war, or family connexions, or wealth, sits in the middle, like a chorus-leader. Beside him is the host, and next on either side the others according to their respective ranks. (Poseidonios, in Athenaeus IV.151;152)

and alternatively,

When they dine, they all sit, not upon chairs, but upon the ground, using for cushions the skins of wolves or of dogs (Diodoros V.28.4).

The composition of the group is a great deal more inclusive than the circle of participants in a Greek symposion. No mention is made of family, rank or wealth requirements; instead, it is clear that a wider cross-section of the society take part. The service at banquets is supplied by children of a suitable age, girls and boys alike (Diodoros V.28.4), not just slaves or servants.

The presence of reputable women at feasts has long been declared absolutely unthinkable by scholars. As late as 1972, Pauli still questioned whether banqueting vessels in a tomb should be considered diagnostic of a male burial (106-7). At least we have progressed from Jacobsthal's refusal to consider the Kleinaspergle burial as female: "mixing, bowl, flagon, cups and drinking horns are eating and drinking vessels: are we to believe that the prehistoric Swabian women drank as promiscuously as Etruscan women?!" (note; 1934, 19). Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of banqueting services with otherwise female assemblages continues to contribute to current confusion over "Celtic" gender and sexual identity. There is ample evidence from throughout the "Celtic" lands for the burial of women with such vessels for them to be definitively ruled out as gender markers, notwithstanding the interregional variability in this as in other practices. Vix, Waldalgesheim, Reinheim, and many others exemplify the extremely high quality and opulence of the drinking vessels deposited with women; whether and how they were used in life is as much a question for the female burials as for the male. The classical authors are reticent on the point; what struck them as worthy of mention is the unaccountable preference of "Celtic" men for others of their own sex, engaging in homosexual liaisons indiscriminately and in public (Rankin 1987/1996, 55; Diodoros V.32.7).

A second characteristic of "Celtic" drinking that is revealed not by literature but by archaeology is the widespread use of drinking horns (e.g., at Hochdorf). There has been a great deal of controversy over the derivation of these vessels; there is no question that they were favored vessels of the nobility among Thracian, Scythians, and other nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppes, in the first millennium BCE (Krauße 1996. 109 ff.). The Greeks used both the keras, a closed drinking horn, primarily during the sixth century BCE in orgiastic revels or in the post-symposion komos (ibid.) and the rhyton, an open libation vessel that was often horn-shaped and thus often indistinguishable from the functional drinking horn in vase paintings. The Greek adaptation of the kline, otherwise both the marriage bed and the bier, for use in the reclining banquet, was a parallel development, borrowed from the Near East together with the drinking-horn (Fehr; Dentzer). Krauße notes significantly that the Greeks stopped depicting the horn in use at the symposion after the early fifth century BCE; however, the kline continued in use for centuries (1996). Neither klinai nor kerata were deposited in Greek tombs.

Much dispute has arisen over the path by which this oriental practice entered the "Celtic" cultural sphere. Most recently, Krauße has emphatically argued that the influence was not direct, between northern neighbors, but rather filtered through Italy and ultimately Greece in a conscious imitation of Greek symposion practices (1993, 188 ff.; Krauße 1996, 95 ff). Because contemporary Greeks were no longer depicting kerata on symposion vases, the "Celts" must, he argues, have learned of the practice via Italian adaptations: "The Hallstatt princes presumably considered these [Greco-Etruscan] practices as genuinely Greek" (note, Krauße 1993, 195) and thus desired to emulate them. Since I see no reason why genuine Greekness would make any practice more desirable than another to the "Celts", this argument seems unnecessarily to inject a Hellenic element into indigenous drinking practices that are otherwise entirely free thereof.

Literary sources depict the behavior of "Celts" at the Trinkfest as entirely un-Greek. Besides eating rapaciously and drinking a great deal, the "Celts" spend their banquets arguing and even fighting with one another, rather than discussing philosophy or singing poetry:

The Celts sometimes have gladiatorial contests [single combat] during dinner. Having assembled under arms, they indulge in sham fights and practise feints with one another; sometimes they proceed even to the point of wounding each other, and then, exasperated by this, if the company does not intervene, they go so far as to kill. (Poseidonios, in Athenaeus IV.154)

Diodoros attempts to explain this uncouth practice by reference to "Celtic" belief in metempsychosis:

And it is their custom, even during the course of the meal, to seize upon any trivial matter as an occasion for keen disputation and then to challenge one another to single combat, without any regard for their lives; for the belief of Pythagoras prevails among them, that the souls of men are immortal and that after a prescribed number of years they commence upon a new life, the soul entering into another body (Diodoros V.28.5-6)

From the evidence cited, it is evident to me that the "Celtic" Trinkfest has very little in common with the Greek symposion. It is an emphatically public event, not a private party among aristocrats, and involves both equipment and behavior quite different from the latter. Derivation from Etruscan orientalizing and from Near Eastern sources seems more likely than from Greece; most likely of all is indigenous development using local materials and filling local needs.