Celtic music is revered by many for its relaxing and ethereal qualities. Some list it as a tool for meditation and for finding peace of mind. While some of us may associate its sounds with dreamy medieval fantasies, Celtic music also has a belligerent side. A video that has recently gone viral shows a Celtic carnyx being played live for an audience. This centuries-old instrument was once used to call troops to battle and has a deeply haunting sound.
But what is a carnyx? It's an ancient wind instrument developed by the Iron Age Celts. Its most striking characteristic is the bell, which has the shape of an open-mouthed boar or another intimidating creature. It features a type of bronze trumpet with an elongated S shape. Its player holds the long straight central portion vertically, while the mouthpiece end section and the animal-inspired bell are kept horizontal in opposite directions.
The caption of the video notes that this was the sound Roman soldiers would have heard their Celtic foes make. Used by Celtic warriors marching into battle or for large ceremonies, the height of the instrument allowed it to be heard over the heads of dozens upon hundreds of people. It was commonly used between approximately 200 BCE and 200 CE.
“The carnyx was once widespread throughout much of Europe, although only a dozen or so fragments are known to us,” writes National Museums Scotland (NMS). “Bands of Celtic mercenaries took it on their travels; carnyces were present at the attack on the Greek sanctuary at Delphi in 279 BCE; carnyces defied Julius Caesar in Gaul; carnyces faced Claudius when he invaded Britain”.
More so, the NMS explains that the legacy of the instruments speaks to the exchange of ideas among cultures back then. “They are even shown on a Buddhist sculpture in India, proof of the far-flung connections of the Iron Age world. Yet they are not a purely Celtic instrument: they were also used among the Dacians, in modern Romania. ‘Celtic' is a complicated term. The idea of a pan-European Celtic culture is a myth: instead, aspects of art and technology were shared over wide areas among diverse cultures. The carnyx was one example of this.”
Going back to the video, it is not immediately clear where the video was shot; some point to a concert by Spanish multi-instrumentalist Carlos Nuñez in Brittany, while others point out to a show by metal band Wardruna, known for incorporating traditional Northern European instruments to their music. Either way, this speaks to the versatility of its chilling sounds. You can also check out a recording from the reconstruction of the famed Deskford carnyx here.
A video that has recently gone viral shows a Celtic carnyx being played live for an audience.
Not only its sounds are deeply haunting on their own–this centuries-old instrument was once used to call troops to battle.