Since we’ve been focusing on mostly modern Celtic materials in this class, I figured I’d take a step back and discuss an older group of Celtic speakers: the Gauls. I became particularly interested in Gaul and the Gaulish language due to the band Eluveitie, a folk metal band from Switzerland that utilizes Gaulish history and occasionally even the Gaulish language in their songs. Mostly, I was drawn in by the sound of the language, but I also was intrigued by the process that is necessary to use a dead language in modern music.
Before I start discussing Eluveitie’s experience with singing of Gaul and in Gaulish, I think it is important to understand the history of Gaul and its language. The Gauls existed in the space currently occupied by “France, Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany on the west bank of the Rhine, and the Po Valley, in present Italy” (Bisdent). This ethnic group settled in these areas prior to the construction of the Roman empire, though they were later contemporary with the Romans. Of course, like most non-Roman groups during the age of the Roman Empire, the Gauls were not on good terms with the Romans. The Gauls invaded Rome in 390 B.C. only to be completely taken over by the Romans between the years of 222 B.C. and 52 B.C (Bisdent; Hays). Following the conquering of Gaul by Rome, “Gaul was systematically romanized,” and the French language resulted from this cultural and linguistic mix (Hays). Unfortunately, a significant amount of information that is known about Gaul has been provided by the Romans, who portrayed the Gauls as primitive, violent, and superstitious (Bisdent; Hays).
As for the Gaulish language, its features would have most clearly resembled those of other Brittonic languages. Unlike the modern Brittonic languages like Welsh and Breton, Gaulish did not survive past 550 C.E. according to Gregory of Tours, though some speculate that it may have been spoken in “remote rural areas” until the end of the 8th century (“The Modern Gaulish Language” 10). Even so, efforts have been made to reconstruct this language, which has a decent amount of written materials to draw from. Still, difficulties surrounding the reconstruction of a dead language are quite apparent here, especially since written material can, at best, only offer clues as to how the language was pronounced. Additionally, the revival of the Gaulish language relies upon assumptions as to how the language would have evolved over time (“The Modern Gaulish Language”). Taken together, this means that the reconstructed Gaulish language is not exactly how it would have been if it had evolved naturally over time, but it is still a close approximation.
As I mentioned before, Eluveitie uses the Gaulish language in some of their songs, yet the fact that the language has been extinct for so long has caused issues in some cases for the band. For example, according to an interview from a website called Hear Evil (which is a super metal website name by the way, though that’s probably the intent since it had focused on heavy metal), singer Anna Murphy mentions how difficult it is “to pronounce and translate it accurately” and states that the band has to work closely with scientists and Celtologists to minimize this issue (“Eluveitie — Anna Murphy Interview”). Even so, it seems that Murphy finds the difficulty worth it, since she also says, “[w]e use the Gaulish language in our lyrics to make the concept as authentic as possible and simply because we think it’s interesting. It sounds really good and works well with the music” (“Eluveitie — Anna Murphy Interview”). Bandmate Chrigel Glanzmann concurs with this idea that the Gaulish language adds an aspect of authenticity to their music as he states, “the use of the Gaulish language is rather a form of ‘artistic work’ to me. It’s more about giving the narration of history some more ‘flesh and blood’” (Stevenson). For Eluveitie, the Gaulish language thus clearly benefits their art, despite the difficulties involved in using it.
It is not only the Gaulish language that presents issues for Eluveitie. Indeed, the credibility of sources surrounding the Gauls can also be hard to ascertain. Anna Murphy discusses this problem when talking about the historical aspects displayed in their album “Helvetios”: “‘Helvetios’ tells the harrowing chronic of the Gaulish war. But it’s not just a chronological account of this terrible war, the album tells the story from the viewpoint of the Helvetians, a Celtic tribe. This wasn’t a very simple task, since history is mostly written by those who triumphed in war which in this case was the Roman empire, Gaius Julius Caesar to be exact. Most of what we know about the Gaulish war nowadays stems from Caesar’s transcripts and that these do not convey the full truth is pretty obvious and also confirmed by historians. His scripture ‘De Bello Gallico’ is political propaganda for his benefit to a great extent in which home and family defending Gauls become ‘belligerent barbarians’ and sheer genocide over Gaulish tribes become ‘glorious battles’ that were fought by Roman legions ‘heroically to protect the Roman people’” (“Eluveitie — Anna Murphy Interview”). Again, this brings us back to the historical background of Gaul, as the Gauls’ ability to tell their own stories was hindered by the presence of the Romans and the eventual romanization of the area. Like the Gaulish language, much of Gaulish history then has to be interpreted. It is really interesting that Murphy brings this topic to the forefront, since it shows the challenges the band must face in weeding out Roman biases while also engaging creatively to fill in the blank spaces of Gaulish history and Gaulish perceptions that are inaccessible to us in modern times. Of course, because of this creative aspect, Glanzmann warns against using the band as an actual academic source when he states, “I think our albums can be an introduction to the subject and they partly also contain interesting stuff for people conversant and experienced with Celtic history. But if you really want to deal intensely with this matter, then go to university or at least an academic library” (Stevenson).
Now that we’ve gotten all the history and interpretation discussion out of the way, let’s get on to the fun stuff: the music! Here is one of the the most well known of their Gaulish songs: Omnos.
This is personally my favorite Eluveitie song and the one that got me into the band to begin with. I’ve attached links to the lyrics below.
Gaulish Lyrics: www.metrolyrics.com/omnos-lyrics-eluveitie.html
English Lyrics: lyricstranslate.com/en/omnos-fear.html
If you’re like me and don’t believe in clicking on links, I’ll give you guys a brief paraphrase about what the song is about: a girl falls for a guy and uses a bunch of seemingly innocent language (“let us play a game / let us dance a joyful dance / let us sing decent songs”), while the guy is presented as very predatory (“in the woods I hunt / hunt for the flower of your youth”) and eventually rejects the girl by stating that he never loved her. Though the girl’s language might be sexually suggestive (where a game/dance = sex), I don’t know Gaulish, so I can’t confirm whether or not this is the case. The later line about her later being “overcome with shame” does make it seem as though that might be the case. The combination of her rejection and shame then causes the girl to drown herself.
Another noteworthy aspect of the song is that the boy is constantly referring to himself as “the bad wolf,” but I’m pretty sure he means this in a more metaphorical sense. Still, in my opinion, the idea of a girl being pursued by a wolf or a wolf-like person gives the song a very folklore-y type of feeling.
So, just to sum up, the Gaulish language and Gaulish history are tricky subjects to write in or about, which makes Eluveitie’s music even cooler than it seems on the surface.
Bisdent. “Gaul.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. 28 Apr 2011. Web. 22 Mar 2017. <www.ancient.eu/gaul/>.
Carol. “Eluveitie — Anna Murphy Interview.” Skull n Bones. 3 Jul 2012. Web. 22 Mar 2017. <skullsnbones.com/eluveitie-anna-murphy-interview/>.
Hays, Jeffrey. “Roman Conquest of France (Gaul) and Britain.” Facts and Details. Jan 2012. Web. 22 Mar 2017. <factsanddetails.com/world/cat56/sub368/item2092.html>.
Stevenson, Rhys. “GMA Interview Interrogation: Chrigel Glanzmann (Eluveitie).” Global Metal Apocalypse. 30 Oct 2014. Web. 22 Mar 2017. <globalmetalapocalypse.weebly.com/metal-interviews/gma-interview-interrogation-chrigel-glanzmann-eluveitie>.
“The Modern Gaulish Language.” Academia. Web. 22 Mar 2017. <www.academia.edu/8944307/The_Modern_Gaulish_Language>.