A few years ago I came across the notion of a carnyx, a bronze wind instrument of the Iron Age Celts. According to Fraser Hunter, it flourished between c. 300 BC and c. 200 CE. It’s a stretched S shape, held vertically so the long, upright bit towered over the heads of the players and so, presumably, those in their company. According to Polybius (the Greek who gave us the idea of separation of church and state—or at least of various parts of government) it was used in warfare.

Here’s an assortment of carnyx images. And here’s one of my favourites.

Wikimedia commons

It’s a photo of plate E of the Gundesrup Cauldron, showing, according to Wikipedia, “a line of warriors bearing spears and shields march to the left accompanied by carnyx players.”

If you want to hear what they might have sounded like, watch this amazing video of a Pictish carnyx being played by John Kenny.

I love the idea of the Northumbrians hearing that noise for the first time, the consequent triggering of atavistic fears. At least, I’m guessing anyone who’s just woken on the uplands at dawn would freeze with fear, flood with adrenalin at the boom and shrill skirling from the mist. Closer and closer… As always, though, I don’t want to sacrifice verisimilitude for a good image. So my question: When did the Picts stop using carnices? And why?

If Pictish brooches are anything to go by, the resources and the skills of the metal workers of the time were easily up to the task. Perhaps if they’d abandoned the carnyx by Hild’s time it was because it was weighty and cumbersome. There again, many tools of war were cumbersome. Take, for example, siege ladders—though, hmm, perhaps not a good example because I’m guessing they could often be built on site from materials to hand. (And I’m not even sure Anglo-Saxons used siege ladders in the seventh century. Eh, something to come back to another time.) So another question: If the Picts did stop using carnices, was it perhaps down to some cultural change, such as religion?

All thoughts appreciated!

7 thoughts on “Carnyx

  1. I’m pretty sure that the Asterix books depict carnynxes / carnices, but this is not archaeological evidence. However, it might be that the French archaeological record (or the Swiss, they have more Celtic remains than the French) might be useful.

  2. It seems making loud, frightening noises in battle has always been part of the art of war, even without any instrument other than the human vocal cord and tongue. Working backwards, I tried a google search for the history and evolution of brass musical instruments. I found references to war horns initially made of bone, ram’s horns, or shells. Then in the iron and bronze ages there are references to the Scandinavian Luur and the Celtic Carnyx. The google search referenced quite a number of books related to the history and development of brass horns. Some of the titles were linked to Amazon. It would seem there might be some specific dates and locations of origin in these histories that can be interpreted as when the use of the cumbersome metal luur or carnyx was transitioned to a smaller but equally loud and intimidating war horn. Another source might be the the American Musical Instrument Society, “an international organization founded in 1971 to promote better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods.”

    1. Sparrow, I will do that search. Thank you. I admit, though, that I’m hoping someone who has read, or even written, those books will tell me, “Go to page such-and-such which says ‘this and that.'” Writers are lazy!

  3. According to the French historian Froissart, the Scots were still using (bronze?) horns to terrify their enemies in the 14th century: ‘each having a large horn slung round his neck, in the manner of hunters…when they blow all together, the horns being of different sizes, the noise is so great it may be heard four miles off, to the great dismay of their enemies’. This courtesy of the excellent ‘The Kilmartin Sessions’, a compilation of ‘the sounds of Ancient Scoltand’ – complete with carnyx. Believe me, when you’ve heard that thing in the flesh (as I’ve had the good fortune to do), it really does raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Like you, I’d love to know exactly when/why the northern peoples stopped using carnyces. They’re the sort of thing that you just *want* to put in a novel!

  4. “Heavy and cumbersome” sure, but I’d guess they could be taken apart and still work, like a lot of modern brass?

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