Carnyx Celts Druids First Branch Mari Lwyd Rhiannon The Mabinogion

Talking Heads

In this post I am claiming a world first. I make a connection that, having searched online, I can’t find anyone else making. What is it? Find out below…

Now, I have music on my mind…. so bear with me as I dive down the rabbit hole…

One thing we know about the Celts of the ancient world is that they were very much associated with the carnyx: a tall horn, the mouth, or bell, of which was shaped like an animal’s head. Wherever Celts were depicted, in Greek or Roman art, they are shown accompanied by the carnyx. It was very much their trademark in battle. Archaeologists have discovered a number of surviving carnyces in recent years, which has allowed musicians to reconstruct their sound and techniques:

One of the most prominent players of the carnyx, musician John Kenny, is featured in a fantastic talk and performance in this (46 minutes) Youtube video.

As far as I can make out – although Kenny doesn’t make this point – its use seems to have coincided with the Druidic period of Celtic history; unlike the harp, which continued to be used throughout the Dark Ages and the Mediaeval period into the present day, the Carnyx seems to have mysteriously vanished from use during the Roman period and, seemingly, somewhere around the time the the Roman Empire became Christian. Did the carnyx have a special role in Druidry, I wonder?

Kenny makes a couple of interesting statements about the carnyx.

First of all, he notes that the instrument’s range is similar to that of a human male voice, but more powerful and with greater projection. Secondly, he notes that wherever there were Celts, there was the carnyx. A third point, very interesting, is that apparently ‘carnyx’ is not actually a Celtic word: it’s Greek but, even in Greek, it’s a loan word. The original root of the word is ancient, originating in north Africa – and it comes from the same root as ‘carnivore’. So, it seems, there is a conceptual link, deep in the forgotten past, between this instrument… and the eating of flesh… (Wikipedia is more boring, and say it’s related to the Celtic word for ‘horn’. Let’s leave that open for the purposes of discussion).

And this leads me to one of the most surprising and portentous things he tells us about the carnyx:

Quite clearly, this represents something from nature. It’s an instrument with a head. […] What was discovered, you will see in a cabinet in the exhibition, was simply the head. The head is very complex, as an object. It has a moveable jaw, and the jaw was completely intact when it was discovered. It has a tongue made of wood, mounted on a bronze leaf spring in its throat. That also was still there when it was discovered. It has a soft palate, which is ridged. […] In fact, this head is made of sheet bronze, hammered for well over 400 hours, from ingot, and, it’s of different grades of bronze, which approximate different weights of bone in real mammalian skulls.

Consider that. The carnyx wasn’t built just to have a surface resemblance to an animal’s head; it was created, with immense skill, labour, and use of costly metals, to precisely resemble the internal anatomical structure of an animal’s head.

Why would they do that? You have to wonder: in the far past, had real animal heads been used? Perhaps with a hollow tube inserted into the windpipe, allowing some kind of music to be produced? It sounds pretty unlikely, but there has to be some reason why so much effort was expended to reproduce the internal structure of an animal’s head in metal. So is there any evidence of a Celtic ritual connected to music and poetry, in which an animal’s head is mounted on a pole?

Oh. Crap.

This carnyx isn’t a reconstruction. It’s a genuine, ancient Celtic carnyx, discovered by archaeologists at Tintignac, in France. Now, that gaping jaw is impossible in a living horse – but it is very typical of a Mari Lwyd. What’s more, that upper jaw/nose doesn’t look at all like the skin and flesh of a living animal – but it does look like a skull covered in loose cloth. In short, it looks to me that this particular carnyx was constructed to represent a Mari Lwyd. This is my claim to be first: I cannot find any trace of anyone, anywhere, having pointed this out before!

As the narrator in that documentary notes, the procession of the Mari Lwyd is “a link between the living and the dead, a link between the present world and the Otherworld”.

I can confirm that this is true: I have accompanied the Mari and her party on numerous occasions, and I’ve seen cars screeching to a halt as we pass; the late-night smokers and drinkers outside pubs fall silent and slack-jawed as we march with drums beating and fiddles calling. Could it be that once upon a time the horse’s head was used as an instrument, a voice calling out from beyond death? Those ancient artificers were skilful; if they wrought the carnyx in the shape of a dead horse rather than a living one, they knew what they were doing.

This leads me to wonder about a couple of things.

The first is about horses. Looking at photographs of the ancient carnyces that have been discovered, they almost always represent a living animal – a boar, a serpent, whatever. It’s only the horse that has been fashioned to represent the unearthly visage of the dead.

It’s very common for the horse, particularly a white horse, to be portrayed as having a special connection with the Otherworld. In Welsh myth, we immediately have to be thinking about Rhiannon, and the role of horses in the First Branch of the Mabinogi. However, while others of the Welsh gods have spoken to me and told me what they want communicated, Rhiannon is not one of them. She remains silent. So… I won’t pursue that train of thought for now.

The second leads me to speculate about the Druids, the cult of the head and head-hunting, and religious sacrifice. Is it possible, perhaps, that there were carnyces in human form? That, perhaps, the heads of enemies, taken in battle, were once, in the far distant past, used as instruments in secret rituals? Perhaps to convey the voices of the Gods? Is that why the Romans suppressed the carnyx, and the Druids?

As I have considered this question, I’ve been digging amongst articles of history and archaeology, and a narrative has presented itself clearly. Ultimately, it does present the ancient Druids in a positive light, but to get there we have to go through gruesome, nightmarish, discussions about human nature and the practices of past societies (some not all that long ago, either). I don’t know if I, or you, have the stomach for that discussion.

Ultimately, we will never know, barring some stupendous archaeological discovery.


The carnyx was the trademark instrument of the Celts of Antiquity, of a Druidic society. It was famously used in battle but, with its range of expression, it’s unthinkable that it wasn’t used in other contexts as well. It was constructed, with great care, to re-create in metal the forms and properties of the flesh and bone of a living animal. There is a potential connection with ‘flesh’.

One, authentic, ancient carnyx was made in the shape of a horse: not a living horse, but a shroud-wrapped skull, bearing an distinct resemblance to the Welsh tradition of the Mari Lwyd.

The Mari Lwyd is connected with poetry and inspiration; with chaos and the world turn’d upside down. It is undeniably an expression of a connection with the Otherworld, with Annwn.

We know that the ancient Celts were warrior cultures, with aristocratic warriors on chariot or horseback raiding their neighbours. White horses are useless for raiding or other military activity; they can be spotted from too far away (there’s an amusing story from the Independence War in Zimbabwe, when Rhodesian soldiers acting as mounted infantry were gifted white horses by South African supporters. They tried to dye the horses to be less visible, with unanticipated results!). Still, to the Celts, white, or pale, horses had a specific connection with the Otherworld – but what was it? A clue lies in ancient Welsh descriptive language: a pale (white or grey horse) was described as glas: the same word that is used for the colour of the sky and sea, for the forest and for slate. It conveys shining. As I discussed in a couple of previous posts, it is a colour very much associated with Gwyn ap Nudd, and Annwn.

Hmmm. The Mari Lwyd is ““a link between the living and the dead, a link between the present world and the Otherworld”. The hounds of Annwn are white, with red ears. Were pale horses a way to travel between worlds? To join the living with the dead?

There is meaning here. I feel that there is a truth hidden here, waiting for its moment to be unveiled. Perhaps Rhiannon will break her silence…


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