Celtic Feasting

by Rhiannon Davies

Our Celtic Festival has much in common with the epic Celtic feasts described in Welsh and Irish myth, and commented on by classical authors. The vast quantities of food, mood, mead and music are obvious attributes of these, but in your drunken (or not so drunken) haze, you might well have forgotten other traditions you were reviving. The chief religious festivals of the pagan Celtic year were Beltain (May 1st), Lugnasadh (August 1st), Samhain (November 1st) and Imbolc (February 1st); this last, nearest to our own Festival, was a celebration of the earth's new fertility, and parts of the ritual survive in the Green Man (originally a sacrificial Wicker Man?) of the St Ives festival. Our own celebration, however, owed more to Celtic feasts than to these ceremonies: the Boar Roast (held by the Arthurians each Trinity term from the mid-1980s until 1994, since when it has been discontinued - MK, 1995) forms our Beltain rites!

What impressed writers most about these feasts was the sheer quantity of food provided. King Louernius of Gaul is supposed to have built an enclosure one and a half miles square and filled it with food and drink; anyone who wished could enter the enclosure and eat their fill, day and night. Such legendary generosity, the most highly praised virtue of Celtic kings, was not without purpose. For a start, it bought them their praise! And moreover, after three hundred of the finest fighting men of Britain were feasted for a whole year at Mynyddawg's court, they had to fight for him at Cattraeth; only one man survived to tell the tale. He, the Welsh bard Aneirin, commented that:

"For the spirited men, Gwyleged of Gododdin contrived the famous feast of Mynyddawg - and the costly, when paid for by the fight at Cattraeth."

In fact, feasting and battle were not always as separate as the Gododdin shows. A classical source informs us that "the Celts sometimes engage in single combat at dinner. Assembling in arms they engage in mock battle - drill and mutual thrust and parry. But sometimes wounds are inflicted, and the irritation caused by this may lead even to the slaying of the opponent, unless the bystanders hold them back." The Irish story of Briciu's Feast describes how the most quarrelsome man in Ireland, Briciu (a mythological parallel to Efrissien in the Mabinogi), gave a feast in order to provoke trouble. He invented the three greatest heroes in Ireland, Loegaire, Conall, and Cu Chulainn, and let them quarrel over the hero's portion. This was the roasted thigh-piece, awarded to the best warrior in the room; a duel to the death would quickly settle any doubts.

To avoid such problems, at the 1990 Celtic Festival we followed King Arthur's example and served hot peppered chops (as cited in the Mabinogion tale, The Lady of the Fountain); the pale mead flowed in attested golden streams; and yet, for all my researches, I have not yet found a reference to those strange earth apples from the Western Isles that formed so great a part of our celebrations. Perhaps they were washed up in the magical salmon-weir of Gwyddno Garanhir?

Celtic costume was traditionally of furs and plaids, and it was only in battle that the men rushed forwards wearing nothing but golden torques and blue woad - obviously everyone knew that, or I'm sure some would have come sky-clad! As we are Romano-Britons, more elaborate or civilized dress was readily available. A last word on feasting from Diodorus Siculus: "The nobles shave their cheeks, but let the moustache grow freely so that it covers the mouth. And so when they are eating, the moustache becomes entangled with the food, and when they are drinking, the drink passes, as it were, through a sort of strainer..."



Rhiannon Davies, after leaving Oxford, founded the Cardiff Arthurian Society.

Originally published in Ceridwen's Cauldron no 16, Trinity 1990.