This page collects references to common, reoccuring cultural features in Sutcliff's historical fiction.
Celtic and pre-CelticEdit
- Lugh of the Shining Spear
- Epona the Mother of Foals
- The Horned God
- Nuada of the Silver Hand
- The Corn King
- The Earth Mother
- The Sea Beast
- Mithras the Bull-Slayer, Lord of the Legions, Lord of Light
- The Furies
- Ram the Mother of Foul Weather
- Wayland Smith
Significant plot events frequently take place on or about Celtic festivals and other holidays (partly because characters may not keep time more precisely.)
Roughly March 21.
Midway between spring equinox and summer solstice, roughly May 1.
- Warrior Scarlet – New Spears are initiated on Beltane eve and rejoin the tribe on Beltane, when they help wake the year fire, drive the livestock between the fires for fertility, and jump over the fires hand-in-hand with their choice of maiden.
- Sword at Sunset – Hengest's attack on Deva uses the Beltane fires as cover for signal fires.
- Song for a Dark Queen
- Sun Horse, Moon Horse
- Shifting Sands?
The summer solstice, roughly June 21.
- Warrior Scarlet
- Sword at Sunset – The Damnonii drive their livestock between fires on a hill surmounted by a ring of standing stones, accompanied by dancing and drinking, in which Artos pairs off with Guenhumara. An Irish raid takes advantage of the absence of the villagers to attack their dun.
- Flowering Dagger – The annual extinguishing and reawakening of the year fire in Saba's tribe. Saba at 14 participates in the fertility rites for the first time, wearing a flower crown and receiving approaches from young warriors.
A harvest festival midway between summer solstice and autumn equinox.
- Sword at Sunset – Maglaunus the chief retreats for three days of fasting before playing the god in a stag-head costume. Artos marries Guenhumara.
- Sun Horse, Moon Horse
Roughly September 21.
Midway between autum equinox and winter solstice, roughly equivalent to Hallowe'en and All Hallows in its thematic connection with ghosts and the dead.
- The Silver Branch – Justin and Flavius learn that Carausius has been assassinated.
- Sword at Sunset – Guenhumara arrives in Castra Cunetium, meets Bedwyr, and asks after the dead Gault.
- Song for a Dark Queen
- Sun Horse, Moon Horse
The winter solstice, roughly December 21.
- Sword at Sunset – The Trimontium storehouse is burned down in the Midwinter feast, leading to a famine winter.
- Frontier Wolf – Alexios breaks up a brawl during the Midwinter feast of 341. The Wolves take refuge in Habitancum on Midwinter of 342, hoping that the Votadini will not reach them before nightfall on the shortest day of the year, as the Votadini do not fight after sunset.
The Feast of the New SpearsEdit
The Feast of the New Spears is a warrior initiation ritual for young men that appears in most of Sutcliff's Celtic tribes, sometimes preceded by years of formal training. It occurs in a boy's mid-teens, usually on one of the preexisting Celtic feast days.
- Warrior Scarlet – Boys of Drem's clan spend ages 11 to 15 in the Boys' House in the chieftain's household under the eye of the trainer and Midir the druid. In the winter of their last year, they draw lots for the order in which they slay their wolf, whose pelt they keep. Those who pass the Wolf-Killing and are sponsored by two older warriors are initiated as New Spears on Beltane Eve with ritual tattooing, during which they must keep silent; a psychoactive drink; and a night in a sacred grove with Midir and other warriors of the Tribe dressed as animal totems, during which they see the Sun god. In the three days of their absence the boys are mourned as dead, then reborn as men on Beltane, when they are eligible to help wake the new year's fire as part of the drill team.
- The Eagle of the Ninth – Marcus and Esca attend the initiation of the Epidaii New Spears in the autumn at the Place of Life, a burial mound controlled by the Seal Clan. They see the Eagle brought out to show the tribe. Esca was newly-initiated at 15 or 16 when his clan of the Brigantes was destroyed.
- Outcast – Beric begins warrior training in his villge at 9, when there is some debate as to his eligibility. He is cast out just before his initiation in the spring he turns 16 and never receives his complete tattoos, though he received some as an infant when he was first adopted.
- The Mark of the Horse Lord – Phaedrus passes his kingmaking ordeal of three days and nights in the same Place of Life, where the Dalriadain continue to initiate their young warriors in a rite called Taking Valour. They receive the characteristic Pict tattoos, which non-warrior men, and women, do not appear to have.
- The Changeling – Tethra of the Epidi is initiated and receives his tattoos in the autumn, in the same region.
- Shifting Sands – Singing Dog, at 15, has just received his tattoos. Blue Feather, at 12, joins the Women's side at the fertility-related Spring Dancing for the first time, while the Men's side performs the hunt-related Autumn Dancing, and probably initiates young hunters at the same time.
The sacrifice of leaders for the good of their people as a common element of ancient religions was an idea that gained traction in popular culture in the early twentieth century through Sir James Fraser's work of comparative religion The Golden Bough, which Sutcliff is known to have read. Examples are given in publication order to show the period of her greatest interest in the theme.
- Knight's Fee (1960) – King William Rufus dies mysteriously in the New Forest in 1100, a year of millenial apprehension. He is said to be a pagan, and it is suggested that a redheaded man dies for the people in the pagan tradition.
- Dawn Wind (1961) – Saxon kings once sacrificed themselves to their gods; now the king of the horse herds is sacrificed.
- Sword at Sunset (1963) – Artos directly discusses the tradition. Ambrosius is said to enact is it by orchestrating his own death in a hunt for a king stag, in order to pass the crown to Artos. Artos himself invokes the idea shortly before his own death.
- The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965) – The Horse Lord of the Dalriadain is expected to sacrifice himself for the tribe in times of trouble. Midir's father did it through a hunting "accident" during a famine. Liadhan the usurper queen fails to "answer her Call" in the opinion of Murna and the Old Man of the Green Hills, preferring to send her consort to his death, thereby losing the support of the tribe. Phaedrus, the impostor king, finally chooses death over betrayal of his adopted people.
- The Chief's Daughter (1967) – Nessan, the daughter of a Bronze Age chief, takes the place of a human sacrifice she chose to free. Though not a political leader, the title associates her with the pattern.
- Sun Horse, Moon Horse (1977) – Lubrin Dhu, a chief's son not technically in the matrillineal line of succession, is considered the chief of his people by their conquerors, and ransoms their freedom with his own willing sacrifice.
- Frontier Wolf (1980) – The Ducenarius of the Frontier Wolves and a clan chieftain fight a duel to spare their followers' deaths.
White horses are a symbol repeatedly associated with leadership. Like the leaders, they are sometimes a favourite sacrifice.
- The Rider of the White Horse – Sir Thomas Fairfax.
- Dawn Wind – The white horse is the banner of the Saxons. A white stallion is the king of the royal horse herd who is sacrificed in times of need. Owain and Vadir are connected by Teitri the God Horse, whom they delivered, and Vadir's death in a sacrilegious attempt to ride Teitri is regarded as a human sacrifice claimed by the pagan gods.
- Sword at Sunset – Artos invariably rides a white stallion to make himself visible to his troops – Arian, Signus, and Grey Falcon over the course of the novel. He is acclaimed emperor on the White Horse of Uffington after the nearby Battle of Badon Hill. The white horse is also the banner of the Saxons, who use horse-skull standards, and a Saxon reminds Artos that they once fought for Rome under the Pegasus banner of the Second Augustan Legion.
- The Mark of the Horse Lord – Phaedrus sacrifices a white stallion during his kingmaking rite.
- Sun Horse, Moon Horse – Lubrin Dhu is inspired in early life by the sight of a white mare running. When Cradoc the chieftain asks him to create the Uffington White Horse, a sun stallion, he instead produces a moon mare. To complete the work, Lubrin is sacrificed on the horse's eye.
- The Shield Ring – An Anglo-Norman calaims that his mother hails from the White Horse Vale and is as Saxon as the White Horse itself.
The Washer at the FordEdit
The Washer at the Ford, the apparition of a woman washing bloody clothes, is a harbinger of death in Celtic folklore.
- The Hound of Ulster – retelling of Cu Chulainn's life, including the Tain
- Song for a Dark Queen – Boudicca fears that the red sunset on the river the night after a potentially sacrilegious human sacrifice portends death to her men.
- Frontier Wolf – The Votadini momentarily take the woman bathing her dead infant at the Ford of the Rowan Trees as the Washer.
- Bonnie Dundee – The Highlanders are spooked before the Battle of Killiecrankie by the sight of an old woman washing her bedsheets long after spring. Alistair Gordon, who tells this to Hugh Herriott, does indeed die in the battle.
- Flowering Dagger – Saba is doing the spring washing at the ford during her fatal meeting with Brychan.
- The Changeling – Murna is doing the spring washing at the ford when her baby is stolen for sacrifice.
A mock "abduction" of the bride and horseback chase by her brothers and tribesmen is the cap of various weddings, both Celtic and Saxon. It is said to be a ritual version of former real marriage abductions.
- Dawn Wind – At Beornwulf's eldest daughter Helga's marriage, the groom rides three circuits around the farm with Helga on his saddle-bow, pursued by the other young men of the wedding party carrying young women of their choice. Vadir Cedricson, the lead rider, marks his interest in Helga's sister Lilla by taking her up, against her inclination.
- Sword at Sunset – Artos marries Guenhumara at Lammas and narrowly avoids having to have sex with her at the ceremony by carrying her off in the traditional fashion, seconded by his new lieutenant, Guenhumara's brother Pharic, who leads the chase.
- The Mark of the Horse Lord – At the Horse Lord's marriage, the bride pretends to flee on a mare while pursued by the King and his Companions, a practice called the Royal Hunting. The unwilling Princess Murna actually does try to escape, but her mare is has been carefully worn out beforehand.
- The Shining Company – Prosper's brother's wedding in chapter 5
- Sword Song – Groa is carried off by Dungadr to his fortress after their wedding. Her brother-figure Bjarni and the other Viking guests have not been forewarned, but get into the spirit of things quickly.