There's bull-running and there's bull-running. At one extreme, there's the sort where there's far more chance of a spectator or two being killed than the bull. Thirteeen so far this year, as you know. At the other extreme is the sort where a lone bull is chased by hordes of pedestrians and horse-riders and hacked at with knives and lances until it bleeds to death. Or until someone gives it the coup-de-grace with a dagger in the back of the neck, severing the spinal cord. Such is the Fiesta de Toro de La Vega, near Tordesillas in Castilla y León. Understandably, many thousands of people protested in Madrid recently against what few would deny is a barbarity. But the local (socialist) mayor has refused to stop it and accused of 'blackmail' those who've offered free music festivals in the city to replace this 'popular event' and to keep the city's coffers filled with tourist euros. Only in Spain? More here and here, if you can bear it. Don't watch the video if you're sensitive.
As regards the saner/less insane form of bullfighting/goading - la corrida - it's reported that the latest surveys show that over 90% of Spaniards are against both this and any kind of event in which bulls are deliberately tortured, and want to see them banned. Frankly, I would have thought the afficionados of la corrida would also like to see the end of the Fiesta de Toro de La Vega, given that it jeopardises everything. Presumably, though, they see a ban as the thin edge of the wedge.
HT to my friend Dwight - incidentally a proud aficionado of la corrida but not the Toro de la Vega event - for these favourite Spanish words of a guiri, who gives their various context(s):-
The left-wing British newspaper, The Guardian, today rails against right-wing politicians who take out of context or distort the sayings of saint Jeremy of Corbyn. No one on the left would ever do that, of course. For example with Mrs Thatcher's (in)famous comment about there being 'no such thing as society'. God forfend!
Finally . . . The Celts: There's an superb-sounding exhibition about to start in London. Here's the full text of a Times article today on this. Three things jump out:- 1. There were, indeed, "Celts" all over continental Europe, including northern Spain and Portugal: 2. The last thing the 'Celts' of England, Ireland and Scotland were was Celts; and 3. The name was highjacked relatively recently by 'nationalist' peoples who wanted to differentiate themselves from others. Usually their rulers. As with Galicians and the Spanish, of course. As someone says: "The word Celts suddenly seemed very handy.
Celt up! Everything you need to know about a dynamic culture
A major new exhibition takes us on a tour of Celtic art, from a 500BC sandstone warrior to a modern-day football shirt
With his stylised features, geometric tunic, his strange, three-pronged necklace and even stranger headdress that looks like Mickey Mouse ears, this life-sized, red sandstone warrior looks like some sort of ancient South American. Towering on massive legs at nearly two metres and with a downward curve to his carved mouth, he looks terrifying. What he does not look, at all, is Celtic. Which he is. At least he was. It’s complicated.
The Glauberg warrior was buried in about 500 BC alongside a young Celtic prince about 20 miles northeast of what is now Frankfurt. He is one of the earliest items at an exhibition opening later this month at the British Museum, Celts: Art and Identity. He is a striking part of a story that goes back 2,500 years and stretches across Europe from Portugal to Turkey as well as into Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Ireland.
Of course there have been exhibitions about Celts before. What is different about this one, says co-curator Julia Farley, is the sheer breadth of time and geography it covers, from 500BC to the present day. The exhibition will attempt to show how the meaning of the word “Celt” has been redefined over the centuries, and how that identity is expressed in art.
It will include Iron Age objects such as the Snettisham Great Torc, a heavy gold necklace in the museum’s collection, and the magnificent silver Gundestrup Cauldron from Denmark, decorated with images of Celtic people (the first time the object has travelled to Britain). Later items include the 8th-century St Chad Gospels — a stunning, intricately decorated Bible — and stone medieval crosses. There will even be a Celtic football shirt and a Korean manga comic with beefy moustachioed characters inspired by the Celtic stereotype that prevails today. Yet as our sandstone warrior tells us, Celts haven’t always been what we think they are.
“The world ‘Celtic’ or ‘Celt’ has been redefined in the past 300 years and it has taken on a meaning which isn’t quite the meaning it originally had to the people who first used it,” says Farley. Around 500 BC, she explains, the Ancient Greeks started recording people whom they called “Celtoi” as marauding through parts of Europe. A map at the start of the exhibition shows those areas cutting right across the continent, but these Celts are conspicuously absent from Britain and Ireland.
Yet as Farley explains, “The Ancient Greeks and Romans are talking from the perspective of the classical Mediterranean and so they see these people as moving war-bands. Some authors use the word as a broad-brush term for everybody living across this swathe of temperate Europe; they’re like, ‘Yep, to the north, that’s Celts.’ It’s not their own term and it’s not one that’s used with any particularly accurate definition or consistency.”
We now know that those “Celts” weren’t a defined, single people. “If we look at the evidence of their houses, how they bury their dead, how they dressed themselves, you see a real mosaic of quite different communities all across that area,” says Farley.
So hang on, if the Celts — who you could argue weren’t really Celts because they probably didn’t even call themselves Celts and weren’t even the same Celts — were spread out across Europe but not in Britain or Ireland, how did we end up calling what we call Celts, Celts? We must, says Farley, fast forward to the 1400s “because during the later Roman period right through into the 1400s, nobody is using the word Celts”. The word was rediscovered, she says, when the classical texts were translated and reprinted after the invention of the printing press in 1440.
“This is a time when you’re getting much more clearly defined, emerging nation states in Europe; people are wanting to tell local histories. Before that, when they’d been talking about the histories of people in Europe, they’re really drawing on the Bible — so which of the sons of Noah settled where is a real question — and myths like the Aeneid. But those stories aren’t specific to a particular area, and once people start wanting to tell the story of their nation in the deep past, that’s not good enough. But they don’t have many written histories to draw on until they start reprinting these classical texts.”
The word “Celts”, she says, suddenly seemed very handy. “It becomes almost a catch-all term for the pre-Roman inhabitants of a lot of western Europe, and it’s first used to refer to inhabitants of Scotland and Ireland by [the humanist scholar] George Buchanan in 1582.”
Then, in the early 1700s, with the discovery of linguistic similarities between the indigenous languages spoken in Ireland, the northern and western coast of Britain and in Brittany, a term was needed to cover this loose family of languages. “So they use the name Celtic. I think it’s because the word got attached to those languages, which came to stand so much for the distinctive heritage of those regions, that the words Celts and Celtic started to be used to mean something that creates a sense of difference from the English and the French. Where the ancient authors used to refer to the Celts and where we think of the Celtic nations as being today, is almost completely different — the only overlap is in Brittany. It is a word that has changed its meaning.”
From a word used to differentiate the other to a word used to differentiate the self. If you’re reading this in, say, Edinburgh and feeling self-conscious about the Celtic band above your bicep, don’t be alarmed. “I get quite cross when people say that this [newer definition] is wrong, because it’s not wrong — words change and evolve,” says Farley. “The word Celt has been redefined to mean that distinctive history, identity, that family of languages of those regions. It has genuinely come to mean that and it does refer to a genuine, deeply rooted regional distinctiveness. That is real, and if we hadn’t given it the name Celtic, it would have had another name. It’s just a question of recognising that the word has been used in different ways.”
This idea of a culture defined by its deliberate differentiation from its neighbours is one that comes up often in the show: a Greek helmet from about 460 BC, with its simple lines and inscription dedicating it to Zeus is contrasted with a Celtic helmet from the same period with, yes, massive spiky horns that, if worn in battle, must have freaked out the opposition something rotten. Yet it is most apparent in Celtic art.
A Scottish Celtic bracelet from the Roman period sits alongside a native Roman bracelet of the same time: both take the form of a snake, but while the Roman piece is slender and naturalistic, the Celtic piece is chunky and only suggests the form of the animal. “They start making this chunky, funky jewellery only after the Roman invasion of southern Britain, and some of these, which are bronze, are probably being made from melted down Roman coinage,” Farley says. “So they’re taking something foreign and making it into their own distinctive local style of jewellery.” A punchy way of showing the invaders what you thought of their wall.
The artistic style is a thread that does run through the Celtic tradition, whatever that means, with a curious consistency. Farley and her co-curator Rosie Weetch are anxious to clarify that there is no single “Celtic art” and to emphasise the point that it does change across time and area. When pressed, however, Farley does admit that there are certain aspects to nearly all Celtic art that mark it out.
“When we were writing our labels for the show and we were asked to distil Celtic art down to three words, we said ‘abstract, ambiguous and swirly’,” she says. “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, but that actually does kind of cover it.” It is abstract rather than naturalistic, often drawing on organic forms but in a very stylised or exaggerated way.
“If you think of the way that they portray animals, they’re doing it differently, so they might be interlaced beasts in the early medieval period, whereas in the Iron Age they’re reduced down to the most basic elements of flowing lines — that idea of taking the natural and simplifying it is something that does very much follow through and is a real differentiator from the classical aesthetic of accurate portrayal,” says Farley.
The designs themselves are often hugely complex, “as if they are designed to draw the eye in and keep you looking at it”, says Farley. “There’s often something quite ambiguous about the designs. They can often be viewed as an abstract pattern or, if you know what you’re looking for, you can start to see hidden faces and beasts.”
A beautiful shield boss from about 350-150BC that was found on the bed of the Thames near Wandsworth in the 19th century seems to be decorated with winding leaves, but suddenly you see two stylised water birds stretching around its outer edge. The swirls that you see everywhere are thought to have had magical properties — they appear on everything from the back of a scabbard sheath (where it could not be seen) to the breastplate on an 8th-century depiction of Christ. “It suggests that those motifs themselves might have had magical properties,” says Farley. “It’s been called by various people studying this art ‘a technology of enchantment’.”
Although the style is reinvented according to whatever influences are around — in the earliest period the art will transform Greek motifs such as the palmette, so that it might suggest a strange face, as on one of the flagons in the show, or in the early medieval period it might embrace something like interlace — these common elements remain.
Farley points to an art nouveau poster for the Glasgow School of Fine Art, which will be in the exhibition. “They’re drawing on Celtic elements but also on Japanese aesthetics. But that to me doesn’t make it less Celtic, because that’s just a modern version of what Celtic people have been doing throughout this whole time period, which is taking traditional motifs, combining them with something new and reinventing it, but in a way which is true to that aesthetic of abstract and ambiguous design.” To abstract, ambiguous and swirly you might also add cosmopolitan and modern. The Celts live on.