…It is useful now to point out a distinction unknown by most. Those tribes that live inland from Massalia, as well as those around the Alps and those on the eastern side of the Pyrenees are called Celts. But those tribes in the northern area near the ocean, those near the Hercynian mountains, and those beyond as far as Scythia, are called Galatae…
Diodorus Siculus, c. 50 BCE
The Variscan Belt is a term employed in the field of geology to describe the remnants of a vast mountain range, originally arising hundreds of millions of years ago amidst the maelstrom of an ancient continental collision.
Today, stony tumbledowns scattered across the European landscape serve as reminders of this once towering range. They remain a prominent landscape feature in many regions of Europe, including in the West of Iberia, in South-Western Ireland and Britain, as well as across much of Central Europe, where the Mittelgebirge belt that runs from central Germany into the Czech Republic exemplifies the appearance of these weather-worn mountain ranges.
An alternate, though generally less widely used term for the Variscan Belt is the Hercynian Belt. As is highlighted in the passage above by the Roman-era historian Diodorus Siculus on the different Celtic tribes of Europe, the word Hercynian is of ancient provenance.
Today, the term Variscan has gained more traction among contemporary geologists. Yet there is a strong argument that Hercynian is the more appropriate term, for one simple reason.
The term Variscan is of Germanic origin, deriving from the Varisci tribe of ancient Germania. Hercynian, on the other hand, is of Celtic origin, and the early Celts- unlike the ancient Germans- were a mining culture. (1)(2)
The Hercynian mountains described by Siculus are generally considered to approximate to the clusters of highland that dominate the modern day nation of Czechia, most notably the elevated block known as the Bohemian Massif, but also the nearby Ore Mountains, which bestride the border between Czechia and Germany, as well as the Sudentes, which cross over into Poland.
Siculus’s account seems to indicate that there was an association between these ancient Hercynian mountains and the Celts, and he is not the only ancient authority to allude to such a connection.
The Hercynian Forest
Centuries before Siculus, when Rome was not much more than a city-state, the emerging power was harassed by bands of Gauls, a Celtic people from the north.
The Roman historian Livy relates the back-story to this confrontation between the Celts and the Early Romans in his monumental work on the history of Rome.
According to Livy, a great Gaulish king, Ambigatus, under whom the land of Gaul had become both prosperous and populous, directed two of his relatives to lead groups of his people into new lands:
…The king, who was now an old man and wished to relieve his kingdom of a burdensome throng, announced that he meant to send Bellovesus and Segovesus, his sister’s sons, two enterprising young men, to find such homes as the gods might assign to them by augury; and promised them that they should head as large a number of emigrants as they themselves desired, so that no tribe might be able to prevent their settlement. Whereupon to Segovesus were by lot assigned the Hercynian highlands; but to Bellovesus the gods proposed a far pleasanter road, into Italy…
Livy, History of Rome
Here Livy, like Siculus before him, draws a connection between the northern Celts and the Hercynian mountains.
The Hercynian mountains or highlands were located within an immense forest, known to the Romans as the Hercynia Silva. This was a wild place, known as much for its fierce and fantastic animals as for the vast oak trees that towered above them.
This conspicuous tree came to be seen as a living landmark of the northern frontier zone, and as such, in some distant age the entire oak-stippled wilderness seems to have taken on its name.
The name of the forest, Hercynia, is believed to be a Romano-Greek translation of a word of Celtic derivation, ɸerkuniā, and may be related to an older pre-Celtic word perkʷu-, or “oak”. (4)
For a footloose Roman wanderer, the sight of the Hercynian wilds on the horizon might well have elicited a shudder down the spine: The Hercynian marked the edge of the civilised world, the very cusp of the abyss.
But long before the rise of Rome, the great forest had marked the boundary-line between two of Europe’s primeval cultures, that of the Celts, who dwelt both within and to the south of this expanse, and the Germanic peoples who dwelt in the lowland plain further north.
The tree that stood as a symbol of this forest may well have been the principal attraction that long ago drew the first Celtic pioneers to this oaken wilderness.
The People of the Cow
The Celtic tribe who inhabited the heart of the Hercynian were known as the Boii. The tribal name, ‘Boii‘, seems to have derived from the Celtic word for ‘cow’, ‘Bo‘. (5)
What were these people of the cow doing in the land of the oaks?.
The importance of the oak tree for the Celtic Boii surely lay in its economic significance. An unusual feature of oak-wood is its high tannin content, a quality prized by builders and barrel-makers as the astringent quality of the wood is repellent to many wood-damaging pests. But a ready tannin supply was also essential for the leather-working trades.
The oak-gall is often found hanging from the branches of the oak tree, a fruit-like ball which is induced from chemicals produced by parasitic wasps. When it is ground up and soaked, galls produce tannic acid, which is then employed by tanners to convert animal hides into leather.
The word tan, from which the words tannic and tanner stem, is most likely of Celtic origin. (6) We might similarly suppose that the word gall, in the sense of a plant outgrowth, might also be Celtic.
Gall brings to mind the Celtic people who Diodorus Siculus called the Galatae. Although the etymology of the word for the ‘gall’ of the oak is said to be uncertain, it would not be much of a stretch to suggest that there is a connection to the name of the aforementioned Celtic culture, who, after all, resided in the Hercynian, the land of the oaks.
It is thus reasonable to surmise that the Galatae tribe known as the Boii were no simple cattle herders, but were an industrious people, skilled in the tanners art.
It is not hard to see the allure of the oak-tree for these cattle-herding northern Celts. Dwelling within the vicinity of oak-woods allowed them to convert their herds into valuable leather products, which were traded, and apparently sought-after, abroad.
A distinctive type of footwear which became increasingly fashionable among Roman men as the Empire expanded was the eponymous Gallicae, a name which harked back to the northern Celtic culture from whence this style of leather boot was first devised. (7)
The Heart of the Hercynian
While the oak tree was of no-small economic importance for the Early Celtic peoples, it was also apparently of some religious significance. Pliny the Elder, the Roman historian, believed that mistletoe growing on the branches of the oak was venerated by the learned class amongst the Celts, known as the druids:
…The mistletoe, however, is found but rarely upon the oak; and when found, is gathered with due religious ceremony, if possible on the sixth day of the moon….
Pliny goes onto to record that, at auspicious times of the year, druids would climb the oak tree to cut a sprig of mistletoe from its branches, after which a pair of white bulls would be sacrificed:
…Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloak…
Notably, Pliny specifies that a golden sickle was employed for this solemn act. Gold, it would seem, was held in high esteem by the druids.
The druidic ritual described by Pliny might be interpreted as a symbolic marriage of the people with the land they inhabit: The Boii, the people of the cow, are perhaps here personified by the pair of white bulls; on the other hand, the Hercynian, the land of the oak, might be represented by the cutting of the mistletoe from a branch of the same tree.
But the significance of the gold, from which the sanctified instrument is crafted, might also be tied to the land underfoot.
The once conjoined nations Czechia and Slovakia, which sit at the heart of the territory known to the Romans as the Hercynian Highlands, have long been lauded for the abundant glittering riches that have periodically been disgorged from their earthy bowels.
The word dollar can be traced to this metalliferous corner of the world: dollar ultimately derives from the name of the silver coin known as the thaler, an abbreviation of Joachimsthaler, a silver-mining town nestled in the Ore Mountains that minted prodigious quantities of these coins in the 16th Century. (9)
But it is gold, not silver, that glimmers brightest in this corner of the earth.
One extensive country-by-country geological survey that was carried out in the 1990s determined that for each square kilometre of territory, more gold had been discovered within the boundaries of Czechoslovakia than any other European country at the time. (10)
Thus, while our gormless Roman passer-by might have been quick to dismiss the Hercynian as an untamed and unprofitable wasteland, their eyes surely deceived them. Out of sight and underfoot, beneath a tangle of twisted oak-roots, gleaming treasures lay.
The Mountain Men
Unluckily positioned between the expanding Roman empire to the south and restless Germanic tribes in the northern lowlands, the ancient Celtic tribe known as the Boii were eventually driven out of their wooded domain.
Their former homeland was henceforth known as Bohemia, which was to later become the appellation of a Medieval Kingdom in the same region. The ‘Bo’ of ‘Bohemia’ was apparently taken from the name of the tribe who once lived in this land. (11)
The traditional lands of the Boii were later re-settled by a Germanic tribe called the Varisci, who as noted above, were to lend their name to the geological term Variscan.
This term, Variscan, was coined by the 19th Century Austrian geologist, Eduard Suess, whose interest in geology was sparked by a visit to Bohemia as an eighteen-year-old, where he noticed the curious geology around the spa-town of Karlsbad.
After spending the following decades of his life investigating the geology of Europe, and subsequently, almost everywhere else, Suess would go on to write a mighty and influential tome, Das Antlitz der Erde, or The Face of the Earth.
Suess introduced many now-familiar geological terms and concepts: In addition to Variscan, he introduced the term and concept of the Tethys Sea, a primordial ocean dividing a pair of ancient continents, dubbed by Suess Gondwana and Laurussia.
While Suess favoured the term Variscan, a contemporary of Suess, the French geologist Marcel Bertrand, opted instead to employ the term Hercynian for the same geological mountain building event.
Bertrand was not the first modern geologist to use the term -Leopold Von Buch had employed the same term in the early 19th century- but this was in a localised sense, in relation to the Harz mountains of his native Germany. For Bertrand, however, Hercynian was a trans-continental phenomenon.
In a response to the publication of the first volume of Suess’ Das Antlitz, Bertrand argued that the three great mountain belts of Europe, the Caledonian, Hercynian and the Alpine chains, are each comprised of a distinctive character of rock, a consequence of having arisen in disparate geological periods. (12)
He subsequently went on to suggest that occurrences of metal deposits tended to a certain cyclical pattern, with different metals being associated with each of the three different classes of mountain chain.
By implication, a mineral explorer infatuated with a particular fruit of the earth might thus find it opportune to home in on the particular mountain chain with the attributes most likely to reward their obsessive objective.
Extending this logic a little further, it might be imagined that a grizzled old-time prospector, possessing a knowledge-bank won from decades of scouring over Europe’s nooks and crannies, might well have noticed this relationship between the character of the rock and the minerals beneath, long before Bertrand’s theoretical musings had been committed to paper.
Hercynia and the Alps
In light of Bertrand’s arguments regarding the discrete geology of the three great mountain chains of Europe, it might be worthwhile honing in on the words of the ancient historian Diodorus Siculus, with which this discourse began.
Recall the description by Siculus of these dual Celtic cultures, one of whom he associates with the Alps:
…Those tribes that live inland from Massalia, as well as those around the Alps and those on the eastern side of the Pyrenees, are called Celts…
Siculus linked the second culture, which he named the ‘Galatae’, to the Hercynian mountains, which, as noted above, most likely correlates to the characteristic geology known today by the same name centered on the ancient territory of Bohemia.
The ‘Celts’, on the other hand, lived not only within the shadows of the Alps, but also near the eastern Pyrenees. Stretches of the Pyrenees also form part of the Alpine system, so this mention of the Pyrenees by Siculus might offer an important clue into understanding the vector behind this curious cultural variance.
The digression of these two groups into distinctive cultures may have been linked to the very rocks that surrounded them, with the idiosyncrasies of these Celtic cultures being induced by the geology of the nearby mountains.
With their craggy abodes abounding in different commodities, the Alpine and Hercynian communities of Celts built up their own distinct network of trade partners across Europe, and the differing customs and languages they encountered over time may have steadily nudged these two cultures down divergent tracks.
The apocryphal tale recounted by the historian Livy concerning the two Celtic brothers, Bellovesus and Segovesus, leading their people to distant lands, seems to represent a Roman attempt to rationalise the emergence of these two distinct Celtic cultures. But the reality was probably less dramatic.
This cultural fissure was more likely driven by the forces of commerce, rather than through force of arms. As specialists in the extraction of different commodities, neighbouring peoples are likely to have sought out the specific Celtic grouping whose mines were best placed to cater to their particular mineral craving.
If so, it is not too hard to determine the commodity that was mined by Siculus’s Alpine Celts.
The residue of the ancient sea of Tethys remains impregnated within parts of the Alps, the product of a tortuous chain of elemental processes over countless millennia. Ultimately, deposits of salt from this primeval sea became bound within the rock. (13)
As a result, salt mines were scattered across the ancient Alps, and one of the oldest, the Hallstatt mine in Austria, has long been associated with the early Celts.
The Galatae, too, were likely driven by a thirst for a particular commodity, though this topic is an essay in itself and shall be revisited at another time.
Over generations, these contacts with divergent markets and different cultural groups manifested into cultural and perhaps even linguistic differences, to the extent that these were eventually noticeable to outside observers, such as Siculus.
These cultures thus seem to have been shaped from the very rocks that surrounded them. The tribes that Siculus called the Celts sprung from the Alps; and then there were the Galatae, the children of the Hercynian.
Land of the Hercynian
The pale blocks that are depicted scattered around the European continent on the map below represent the remnants of the ancient Hercynian, or Variscan, mountain chain that formed hundreds of millions of years ago.
The ancient continents whose tumultuous collision gave birth to these mountains are known as Gondwana and Laurussia. The geological boundary between these two prehistoric territories, termed a suture, is represented on this map by the staggered line cutting through Britain and the north of continental Europe.
The green and red dots represent the major mineral deposits of Europe, which, as is evident below, frequently correlate with the blocks of the Hercynian belt.
The map shown above depicts Early Celtic Europe, with the latter two geological features transposed. A comparison of the two maps highlights the extent to which the ancient Celtic presence overlaps with these geological features.
Of particular note is the close correlation between the Celtic cultural zones and the detritus of the worn Hercynian or Variscan mountains. It would appear almost as if the culture of the Celts germinated within these ancient hills, subsequently mushrooming outwardly to encompass many of the surrounding lands.
Intriguingly, the suture dividing the once-continents Laurussia and Gondwana also seems to have served as a boundary line between the ancient Celtic and Germanic cultures.
The ancient Celts appear to have been inimical to the lands north of this mark, implying that at least some of their number were capable of identifying the fault zone that denoted the margin between the two ancient continents and their disparate geologies.
The correlation between the Celtic presence and these geological features is too close to be ignored. It indicates that in ancient times, Celtic peoples considered certain geological characteristics to be attractive, and actively sought these out.
But if the Celts had an eye for geology, that implies that living amongst them there must have been specialists possessing a mastery in reading the patterns of the land. This prompts the question: who were these enigmatic earth-seers who dwelt amongst the ancient Celts?.
Knowers of the Oak
Ancient Latin and Greek sources describing Early Celtic societies frequently comment on one unusual characteristic of this culture, namely the presence of a learned class known as the druids. (14)
Described as philosophers and theologians, this class was a curiously Celtic anomaly. Julius Caesar, whose covetous ambitions led him to take a close interest in the cultures who were the subject of his bellicosity, states categorically that, in contrast to the Celts, the ancient Germanic peoples were entirely without them. (15)
Piny the Elder thought that the word druid was cognate with the Greek word for ‘oak’, and modern linguists have largely concurred with Pliny’s assessment. More precisely, the word is thought to derive from the combination of two ancient words: oak (‘dru’) and seer (‘wid’).(16)
As with druid, the term Hercynian has been linked back to an ancient word for oak, perkʷu.
Perkʷu pre-dates the ancient Greek word dru, or drus, going back to the Pre-Indo-European mother tongue of Celtic and most other European language families. The word perkʷu is thought to have eventually evolved into the Celtic ɸerkuniā, and was thereafter Latinsied into Hercynia.
The course of the development of these words over time and across different languages is illustrated below, which is based on the estimation of linguists:
Drus (Greek) ← Deru (PIE) ↔ Perku (PIE) → ɸerkuniā (Celtic) → Hercynia (Latin).
Oak or Tree Tree Oak Hercynian Hercynian (17)
The ancient Greek language does not seem to have been as adroit as the Celtic language on matters of the oak, and apparently lacked a precise word for the tree. As depicted above, the Greek word for ‘oak’ (‘δρῦς’ or ‘drus’) could also mean ‘tree’ in a general sense. However, by the Classical era, the ‘oak’ meaning seems to have gained traction.(18)
The word druid and the word Hercynian thus share in common the word ‘oak’, though passed through different language families.
Why was it that in some bygone age, druids were named after oak-trees?
One suggestion that has been mooted is that the presence of ‘oak’ in the word druid is not be taken literally: the oak tree symbolised strength, and so by this interpretation, ‘strong-seer’ may be a more accurate interpretation of the word. (19)
However, this fixation with the tree itself may be something of a red herring. As noted earlier, the ancient Greek language lacked nuance when it came to the oak, with the word for that specific genus and the generic word for tree both falling under the same semantic umbrella.
In light of this imprecision, it is possible that the presence of the ancient Greek word for ‘oak’, or ‘dru’, in ‘druid‘, might not be a nod to the tree per se, but rather an attempt to capture a broader concept, perhaps a landscape named after the oak: in other words, the ancient Greek equivalent of the word ‘Hercynian‘.
It is not unusual for landscapes to be named after trees: An example of this is found in the mallee country in parts of southern Australia, named after a distinctive type of eucalyptus that is common in such so-named regions.
This logic would seem to be reflected in the structure of the word, druid: of the two elements of dru-wid, the latter part of the word denotes knowledge or wisdom: the closest modern approximation to wid would be seer, or wise-one.
Given that wid seems to describe the ‘what’, it would be reasonable to assume that the stem element dru denotes the ‘where’.
And where was that?. The land of the oaks, the Hercynian.
On this assumption, joining the ‘dru’ with the ‘wid’ might translate as something akin to ‘Wise one of the Hercynian’, or, perhaps more succinctly, ‘Wise oak-lander’.
In modern parlance, the closest approximation might be ‘Hercynian expert’, perhaps even ‘geologist’, although geology would likely have been just one field of knowledge falling within the intellectual sphere of the druid.
This begs one remaining question: if the druids were indeed geologists, why was it that the knowledge of geology was so esteemed that it merited a privileged class within early Celtic societies?
It is worth noting that the Proto-Indo-European origins of the word ‘Hercynian’ indicates that the Celtic connection to these so-named hills pre-dates the language of the ancient Greeks, and probably dates back to the distant depths of the Bronze Age.
The economy of the Bronze Age was quite distinct to that of the successive Iron Age, or indeed, any other age since. Every utilitarian, everyday metal object used in this period was forged from copper and tin, both of which are scarce metals.
The class known as the druids were born from a peculiar era in which metals and mining -and by extension, geology- were of a strategic import. Given the general paucity of copper and tin, it is likely that metals were regarded with awe, and the same would have been true for those who possessed a prescient knack in tracking down sources of such metals.
(1) (2020). Variscan . Oxford University Press (view link)
(2) Pokorny, J, 1959, Indogermanisches Etymologicsches Woterbuch, p 821-822 (view link)
(3) Livy, The History of Rome, Book 5 (view link)
(4) Pokorny, J, 1959, Indogermanisches Etymologicsches Woterbuch, p 821-822 (view link)
(6) (2020). Tan . Oxford University Press (view link)
(7) Peck, H. T (1898) The Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, New York: Harper and Brothers (view link)
(8) Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Chapter 95 (view link)
(9) (2012) Jáchymov, Encyclopedia Britannica, (view link)
(12) Termier, P, 1908, Marcel Bertrand 1847-1907, Annales des Mines, Paris, p 42. (view link)
(13) Schorn, A, Neubauer, F, The structure of the Hallstatt evaporite body (Northern Calcareous Alps, Austria): A compressive diapir superposed by strike-slip shear?,Journal of Structural Geology, Volume 60, 2014, Pages 70-84. (view link)
(17) Pokorny, J, 1959, Indogermanisches Etymologicsches Woterbuch, p 821-822 (view link)
(18) Liddell, H.G, Scott, R.S, 1940, A Greek-English Lexicon (view link)