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Storytime

Stories & Secrets

  • Writer's pictureSamantha Aeschbach

Zurich's Celtic Past

The Name of a Tribe That Defined a Nation



Spring @ Landesmuseum
Spring @ Landesmuseum


An Insider's Guide - The Story of Divico & his People

And here I lie, exhausted and on my last breaths. In my final moments, on the battlefield of Bibracte (58 BCE - modern-day France), the memories of my past flow through me like the mighty Rhône - endless and unyielding.


I am Divico (130 - 58 BCE), chieftain of the Tigurini, a tribe of the Helvetii peoples. I stand a firm witness to our people's epic tale—a story of courage, defiance, and the undefeatable spirit of the Celts tribes.



The Dawn of the Celtic Era - Hallstatt Culture

Our origins stretch deep into the chronicles of time, tracing back to the mist-enshrouded dawn of the Hallstatt (modern-day Austria) culture, which flourished from around 800 BCE to 450 BCE when the Greeks had already established colonies in modern Massilia (Marseille) and Nikaia (Nice), and the Etruscans roamed the Italian peninsula.


We traded our precious salt, copper, and tin and discovered iron through the Greeks and the Hittites. This is where we first wielded iron to assert our presence on this earth, revolutionizing agriculture and warfare.


We bent iron to our will, crafting exquisite jewelry and deadly weapons that would eventually be included in the Romans' battle arsenal. So mighty was the mastery of our blacksmiths.



Life and Society

Typical Celtic Attire Zurich @ Illustrations for the Yearbook Archaeology Switzerland issue 102/2019 by Oculus
Typical Celtic Attire Zurich 2nd C. BCE @ Illustrations for the Yearbook Archaeology Switzerland issue 102/2019 by Oculus

Our society was organized into clans, each led by a chieftain like me. These clans lived in hillforts or small villages, with homes typically constructed from wood and thatch.


We were, and we are, known for our distinctive clothing. We, the men, wore trousers paired with tunics, while our women donned long dresses, often with a cloak.


We loved bright colors and intricate patterns, which we wove into our fabrics. We wore gold, silver, and bronze jewelry, such as torcs and bracelets, adorned both men and women, reflecting our status and skills.



The La Tène Period

Yet, as the wheels of time turned and churned, our civilization matured into the La Tène period by the mid-5th century BCE, marking a zenith in our artistic and cultural expression until the Roman conquest in the 1st century BCE. Until now. 


The La Tène period is named after the archaeological site of La Tène on Lake Neuchâtel. This era distinguished us by our sophisticated metalwork, pottery, and textiles, showcasing our elaborate artistic prowess.


Way of Life

We thrived as skilled artisans, warriors, and traders during this period. Our society was stratified, with a ruling class of warrior-aristocrats at the top, just like me.


The Druids, whom I especially trusted, were a revered class of priests, scholars, and legal authorities. I freely admit how they significantly influenced all religious and educational matters during my reign. How could they not, as guardians of secret wisdom passed by our ancestors for millennia?


How could we not trust their healing and divination crafts when Mother Nature seemed to murmur directly into their ears? 



Celtic Zenit 

4th C. BCE - Celtic Treasure @ Landesmuseum
4th C. BCE - Erstfeld (ZH) Celtic Treasure representing the Hunting Goddess @ Landesmuseum

Our golden age of unparalleled flourishing lasted four (four!) centuries, marked by improbable expansions and forays into foreign territories: Ireland and Britain already since millennia, Iberia since the 6th century BCE, 390 BCE to Rome's doors, 279 BCE to Delphi, and even further to Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in the 3rd century BCE as well, where we were known as the Galatians. 


Our trade routes branched out as far as the Mediterranean, bringing wealth, coins, art, and the fables of distant lands into the heart of our society. 


We traded with northern Africa for ivory, the Baltic for amber, and the Greeks and Romans for their precious wine. We reveled in this Mediterranean delicacy! This nectar of the Gods themselves! 


We are a tapestry of tribes woven together by shared traditions, language origins, and similar spiritual beliefs and Gods, yet we have never been united as one people—never truly united. Was this inherent spirit of freedom and sovereignty our ultimate downfall? Was I too late?



Our many Names

Known by many names, the Greeks already named us Keltoi in the 6th century BCE, and the Romans wrote about our diverse tribes inhabiting the territory of modern Switzerland and other lands, calling us Galli: Helvetii, Raeti (a non-Celtic tribe), Allobroges, Tigurini, Rauraci, Seduni, etc. 


We were also a people of complexity and contradiction, fierce and unafraid in battle, unwilling to yield to the Roman Eagle, yet not immune to our own and our neighbors' ambitions and machinations


During our centuries-long convolute history, we have even been allies to Rome, yet, Hannibal himself, on his undettered march across the Alps during the 2nd Punic War, helped us stand against them! 



For A New Beginning - The End of Us 

Glass and amber beads @ Zurich Cantonal Archeology
Glass and amber beads @ Zurich Cantonal Archeology

Our ill-fated quest for a new home in the early spring of 58 BCE was blessed by our Druids and driven by declining resources, population growth, and increasing threats to our lands. This pivotal move was a gamble to secure a more prosperous future for our people and our children. 


What many today can not fathom the real motives that brought us to burn to embers our homes and villages once we decided to leave our ancestral home behind. I know. How could you?


But if you only knew us, if you knew what forged us into who we were, who we are. What resolve cursed through our veins to leave, faith in our Gods and Druids, you would understand that this was more than a symbolic act: a cleansing fire, a mighty omen for a new beginning. 


I followed Orgetorix's grandiose vision for our people, formed two years ago:


  • Unite the Celts under one hegemony.

  • Conquering the invaders and possibly, certainly, gaining new wealth.

Was this the dream of a madman? A plutocrat hungry for new riches? What is certain is that no one can stop this Exodus. Critical mass was reached as other Celtic tribes joined us on our migration. However, Orgetorix's charismatic and tragic story is his to tell. Suffice to know that he was the noblest of them all and had glorious dreams of conquering new lands (Southwest Gaul).


Nevertheless, it embodied our determination never to return, severing ties with our homeland to prevent second thoughts amongst our people.


Yet, it also served a practical purpose, ensuring that our enemies could not benefit from our (meager) abandoned resources should our quest fail. We never considered we could fail...



Coin depicting Orgetorix @ Wikimedia Commons
Coin depicting Orgetorix @ Wikimedia Commons

Bibracte 58 BCE - The Battle that Sealed Our Fate 

 

The last chapter in our storied narrative lies here with me in this pivotal moment on the battlefields of Bibracte, a name that reverberates with the cries of the fallen. A cry of lost dreams, a cry of what's to become of us. 


Here, amidst the clash of iron, I faced Proconsul Gaius Julius Caesar himself, challenging Rome's might not for conquest but for the freedom to seek a new destiny. Others might say we did it in a mania of conquest. We might have. 


Our exchange, recorded in Caesar's "Commentarii De Bello Gallico," echoes the unwavering courage of our tribe:


"The Helvetii do not give hostages; they are accustomed to taking them."

I told him with defiance quavering on my lips, as I knew our fate was sealed. This ethos was born of necessity and the harsh realities of our world.


I die here as a man of 70 years. I have lived much longer than many others and witnessed so much in these turbulent times. I regret nothing. I gave everything. 


This battlefield marks the beginning of our end and the start of Romes's conquest of the rest of Gaul and the rest of the known world.



Julius Caesar's Dictates Our Fate

Julius Caesar and Divico parley after the battle at the Saône. Historic painting of the 19th century by Karl Jauslin
Julius Caesar and Divico parley. Painting by Karl Jauslin

Following our downfall, Caesar ordered us, the ones that remained, to return whence we came from. The lands that today you know as the Swiss Plateau


This strategic decision aimed to repopulate and rebuild the region as a buffer against Germanic tribes to the north and east. These are the same peoples who will bring powerful Rome to its knees in less than half a millennium. Ah, the sweet, sweet irony of the wheels of fate. 


This act of clemency also demonstrated Rome's "benevolence" in victory, a tactic to ensure the newly conquered people's loyalty and integration into the Roman Empire.


Yet our spirit remained unbroken, and our resolve hardened by war trials. We returned to our lands, diminished yet defiant, at least for a while. 


Now, as foederati under the shadow of Rom's Eagle, we serve a new lord. Some of us reached Turicum (a Celtic name), today Zurich, and settled on top of the strategic Lindenhof hill, which the Romans, under the newly crowned first emperor Augustus, would conquer by 15 BCE. But this, my friend, is yet another story. 



Our History - Our Myth 

 

As centuries passed, our name was forgotten in the penumbra of time for millennia. Yet, in the 19th century, amidst the birth pangs of a new Swiss identity, my memory was resurrected as a symbol of unity and resistance.


I join the ranks of other Swiss heroes, such as Wilhelm Tell and Winkelried. 

From the dim recesses of history, I have watched Switzerland emerge, a nation forged from its past's diverse peoples and tongues yet united under the banner of freedom and independence. Under the same cross. 


This reflection, born of time's passage, reveals the complexity of our character. We were conquerors and conquered, marked by victories and defeats, by moments of glory and depths of despair. 


Acknowledging our place in human history finally gives me understanding and peace.  


Remember us, the Helvetii, the Celts, not just as warriors who once defied Rome but as the forebears of the Swiss and other modern nations' spirit, an inheritance that continues to inspire and unite and sometimes still divides.  


Our story lives on in the echoes of the mountains, the whisper of the forests, the roar of the rivers, and the names of many sites and modern cities. 



Not the end

Helvetia atop Zurich HB @ Wikimedia Commons
Helvetia atop Zurich HB @ Wikimedia Commons

Name Derivatives and Helvetic Heritage 


  • Confoederatio Helvetica (CH) is the official Latin name of the Swiss Confederation. The term was introduced after the creation of the federal state in 1848, either for practical reasons or to avoid giving preference to national languages in official communications. The Latin name has been used on coins since 1879, on the front roof of the Federal Palace in Bern since 1902, and on the seal of the Confederation since 1948. CH has become the abbreviation for Switzerland and all things Swiss, particularly since the 1909 International Convention on the Registration of Motor Vehicles. 

  • The Swiss franc (CHF) uses the country code "CH," standing for "Confoederatio Helvetica."

  • Helvetica Font: The world-renowned Helvetica font, created by Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger in 1957, draws its name from "Helvetia."

  • Internet Domain: Switzerland's internet domain, .ch, also stands for "Confoederatio Helvetica."

  • Helvetia: Beyond fonts and domains, Helvetia is an allegorical figure for Switzerland. Embodied in elegant and equally strong female statues and depicted on national currency, this personification of Switzerland as Helvetia underscores the enduring influence of the Celts on the nation's identity, culture, and values.



Museums


  1. Swiss National Museum (Landesmuseum Zürich) - Located in Zurich, this museum boasts a small collection of artifacts from Switzerland's Celtic era, including jewelry, weapons, and pottery. The exhibition provides insights into the daily lives and craftsmanship of the Celtic people in Switzerland.

  2. Museum of Yverdon and Region—Situated in Yverdon-les-Bains, this museum dedicates sections to local Celtic history, including findings from nearby archaeological sites, showcasing the interaction between the Celtic tribes and their environment.



Archaeological Sites and Monuments


  1. La Tène - The eponymous site of the La Tène culture on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel is an archaeological landmark. While the actual site is more of an archaeological interest than a tourist attraction, the nearby museum, the Laténium, provides comprehensive insights into the findings and significance of this area.

  2. Vindonissa—While primarily known as a Roman site in Windisch/ Vindonissa, it also contains layers of Celtic history, as the Helvetii inhabited the area before the Roman conquest. 

  3. Oppidum of Basel-Münsterhügel —An ancient Celtic hillfort located in Basel, it offers insights into the defensive structures and settlement patterns of the Celtic era in Switzerland.




Last reflections

Dear Curious Reader,


I hope you forgive my musings on Divico's last thoughts as he drew his last breaths on the Bibracte battlefield to tell the account of his people. The story is, however, based on historical events as we know them today.


Thank you for indulging me. Stay curious.


Warmly,



signature Samantha Aeschbach




 


Bonus: Sources for the curious

Related Tours: Ireland

Should you be traveling through the verdant Irish lands and crave more than breathtaking landscapes and beer (okay, beer is important), then Garvan, with his degree in Medieval Irish and Celtic Studies, is your man.


He and his fantastic team of guides at Dublin Tour Guides in Ireland, where our Celtic past lives, offer bespoke private guided tours in Dublin, including about the Book of Kells Experience at Trinity College, Dublin.


This article is part of a blog series about Zurich's History. Please also check out the next articles!

 
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