On Scythed Chariots

I mentioned on an internet forum that my new book “The Spear of Crom” had “Romans, Celts and scythed chariots” and another member asked the question “isn't there quite a bit of doubt about the use of scythed chariots in Britain?”

That is a very good question. Speak of scythed chariots and the image of the statue of Boadicea in London probably springs to mind. It’s impressive but is it historically accurate?

The use of war chariots by British tribes is recorded by classical writers, e.g. Tacitus mentions them being used by the Caledonions against the Romans at the battle of Mon Graupius (which happened somewhere in Scotland round about 83 AD). Whether these bore scythes or not is a different matter. There is one specific classical reference to scythed chariots in Britain but I believe current academic opinion is that this was just Roman propaganda. There also seems to be a lack of archaeological evidence, but then there is no archaeological evidence for the druids (who also play a key role in my book), either.

My rather brief description on the forum, however, was inaccurate on 2 counts: What appears in my book is not hordes of "scythed chariots" but an instance of a war machine called a "sickle chariot". The hero of my book is a Hibernian based very loosely on an ancient Irish hero called Conal Cernach combined with another character from Irish history who may or may not have hung around with  Gnaeus Julius Agricola in the 1st Century AD. As mentioned in my last post about the druids, in writing the book I used a lot of research from early Irish literature, particularly the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Táin Bó Fraích and the Táin Bó Flidhais. While the existing texts of these works are very early medieval the language used is much older and the setting is traditionally around the time of Christ, so bang on for the period my book is set.

I took my rather outlandish depictions of the druids (e.g. wearing cloaks made of bird feathers or bull hide) from these sources rather than the modern new age idea that seems to be based on 19th century revivalism. It was in Thomas Kinsella's translation of the Táin Bó Cúailnge that I found a description of a rather impressive device used by the hero Cú Chulainn called the sickle (as opposed to scythed) chariot. That vehicle is described as being covered all over with spikes and sharp points, rather than revolving blades on the axles, and the "sickle" name seems to come from the power it gives Cú Chulainn to mow down his enemies.

Probably like those ancient Roman propagandists, I loved the idea of ancient Celts in scythed chariots. However the actual effectiveness of those revolving blades on the axles of the chariot always bothered me. Then shortly after arriving here in the USA I saw a show on the Discovery Channel where they tried to re-create a scythed chariot based on designs created by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th Century. It worked, but the key difference was that the blades rotate horizontally to the ground, like helicopter blades, not vertically (as in if they stick straight out from the main axles). It struck me that scythe blades swooping round this way much more align to the idea of a "sickle chariot" that reaps a bloody harvest than the conventional idea.

Anfad, the villain in the book, is a druid with connections to Ireland (he studied druidry there) and wanted to give him something that made him an even more formidable opponent for Fergus the hero. The idea occurred to me that a sickle chariot inspired by a combination of early medieval Irish literature and Leonardo da Vinci’s designs would be tremendously cool  :-) Yes, I know that probably makes him more of a Bond villain but that maybe gives you an idea of what the book is like. Heck, there is also a magic spear in it- though hopefully the book explains just enough of the science behind it to make it plausible. 

The idea of the chariot also led to tremendously gory final battle which was an absolute joy to write (and hopefully read).


Popular Posts