What’s in a Name?
Cantlos is the name of the last month in the ancient Celtic calendar. Based on lunar months, the Celtic calendar would have remained a mystery, were it not for the discovery in 1897 of a collection of bronze fragments near the town of Coligny, near Lyon, in France. When the pieces were carefully re-assembled, archaeologists realised that they were looking at what had once been a single bronze plate measuring some five feet by three and a half feet, etched with the names of the
Celtic months and divided into days, each day having a hole drilled alongside through the plate to take a peg-marker. In that sense, the calendar fulfilled the same purpose as a modern desk diary, allowing the user to keep track of the passing days. The dating of the Coligny Calendar is the subject of some disagreement amongst scholars, though a generally-held view is that it dates from the 2nd Century AD, when France (then Gaul) was part of the Roman Empire. This is supported by the fact that, though the language on the Coligny Calendar is Gaulish, the tongue of the Celtic tribes who inhabited Gaul, the inscriptions on the Calendar utilise Latin characters and numerals. The language itself is closely related to the living Gaelic of Ireland and Scotland (the Irish Gaelic equivalent of Cantlos is Cadal), with Latin influences from Gaul’s long assimilation within the Roman Empire (for example, the Latin word cantus translates as “singing”).
Although the Coligny Calendar gives the names of the months of the year, it is unclear when the Celtic year would have begun in relation to our modern year, though we know it would not have been January. It may have begun in Spring, but the calendar illustrated favours an autumn beginning, with the month of Cantlos straddling our modern September/October.
The meaning of each month’s Celtic name is also a source of scholarly debate, but each gives us a thumbnail description of Celtic life through the changing seasons, from the short, bitter winter days of Riuros to the “bright time” of Simivisonios (May/June). But, that debate aside, how fitting it is, after a year of toil and hardship, that the ancient Celtic year should reach its close with Cantlos, the time for singing.
Just as there is no definitive view on the names of the Celtic months, so too are there many opinions on what defines “Celtic” – as distinct from simply “traditional” – music.
Two thousand years ago, the Iron Age Celtic culture was based on an oral tradition, with no written records and no system of notating music. For that reason, no trace of early Celtic music has survived, and any attempt to define it is at best an educated guess.
However, the music and songs of ancient Celtic culture have been passed down through successive generations within the distinctive Celtic heartlands of Ireland, Scotland and Wales (as well as Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia), sharing, as they do, a common language root and strong similarities in the melodic structure of their music.
Although the traditions of dance, music and song differ between these Celtic heartlands, there is an instantly-recognisable “sound” associated with Celtic music, whether it is heard in the helter-skelter of Irish jigs and reels or the reflective lyricism of the Welsh harp or the skirl of the Scottish pipe band. So too with the songs from each of these subcultures, transmitted across hundreds of miles and filtered through the sieve of centuries. Although most of the earliest songs are lost to us, the extensive repertoire of Celtic songs available to the modern performer and listener owes much to the determination of the folk song collectors of the twentieth century who travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles, Ireland and North America, painstakingly notating by hand the tunes and lyrics they harvested from local singers, the last living archives of the ancient tribes. Ashley Hutchings pays homage to iconic song collectors Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles in his song Appalachian Front Porch Game.
But traditions are dynamic rather than static, and over the centuries the Celtic song cultures have adapted to outside influences and absorbed new melodic ideas. That process is ongoing, which is why a song like The Fields of Athenry, written in the 1970s in Dublin, is as much part of a living Celtic song tradition as The Water is Wide, an English folk song derived from the 18th century Scots ballad O Waly Waly. And why The Shores of Avalon, its modern words set to an old Celtic tune, sits easily alongside the much-loved Ye Banks and Braes, composed in 1792 by Scotland’s own Robert Burns. But Cantlos believe that no song should be excluded from our set lists because it’s “not Celtic enough” or “too modern”, so in our concerts you’ll find established favourites like Greensleeves and Scarborough Fair rubbing shoulders with Sydney Carter’s hauntingly visionary Carol of the Universe.