“Their trumpets are of peculiar nature… for when they are blown upon they give forth a harsh sound, appropriate to the tumult of war.”Diodorus Siculus, Greek historian, Library of History, 1st century BCE
The carnyx was a beautiful bronze instrument implemented by the Gauls sometime between approximately 200 BC and 200 CE. The word ‘carnyx’ is derived from the Gaulish root, ‘carn-‘ or ‘cern-‘ meaning ‘antler’ or ‘horn,’ and the same root of the name of the god, Cernunnos. Fascinatingly, the instrument is found on the Gundestrup cauldron, alongside the famous and speculative display of Cernunnos. The cauldron was found in a bog near Himmerland, Denmark. Fragments of the carnyx have been found in France, Scotland, Germany, Romania and Switzerland. Typically the bell of the instrument was usually a boar’s head but a wolf’s head was recovered from Iberia as well as a snake’s head from Tintignac, Corrèze France.
“For there were among them such innumerable horns and trumpets, which were being blown simultaneously in all parts of their army, and their cries were so loud and piercing, that the noise seemed not to come merely from trumpets and human voices, but from the whole country-side at once.”Polybius, Greek politician, Histories, 2nd century BCE
According to first hand classical quotes it was used in warfare and to likely incite warriors in battle but also frighten the enemy of which it was said to be very effective. The carnyx was speculated to be present at the attack on the Greek sanctuary at Delphi in 279 BCE by Gaulish chieftain Brennus. However, it’s additionally thought it may have been used for peaceful ceremonial reasoning based on the location and age of certain pieces such as the Deskford Carnyx found in Banffshire, Scotland which is thought to have been a votive offering by the way it was purposefully placed in a bog. The instrument was also placed on many Gaulish coins as well as featuring on a few sculptural reliefs such as Trajan’s Column in Italy created to commemorate Rome’s victory in the Dacian Wars as well as the Arc d’Orange in southern France among others. The carnyx has featured in the movie Gladiator as well as Brave. The carnyx has not been found in Ireland but similar La Tène style trumpets of the same period have been found such as the Loughnashade trumpet in County Armagh.
“These are the great privileges: trumpets, stringed instruments, holed-mouthed horns, aerophones, tireless bowed-instruments, files [“high-poets”], and reclining poets.”Irish Dindsenchas of Carmun, 1000 – 1200 CE
I know I’m far from alone when I say that the carnyx has been a wonderful inspiration over the years so was only looking forward to hearing from Samuel Meric, an expert from France on the carnyx, who not only creates the instruments himself but has plans to feature the instrument in his upcoming album for his band Gofannon.
How did you first become interested in the carnyx?
I have played music since the age of 6 and as a teenager discovering fantasy, heavy metal and pagan folk music, I’ve tried to learn a lot of instruments by myself and I may have heard of the carnyx by that time. But it’s really in 2019 when I’ve started to work at a Gaulish Village that I’ve started this carnyx project (it’s a place where tourists meet crafters in a village made of iron age houses, it’s called an “archéosite” in French). I’ve started to learn blacksmithing by myself in 2013, mostly by watching youtube videos and meeting older blacksmiths nearby my place. In 2019 I send an application to be the blacksmith of the Gaulish Village but the place was already taken so they proposed me instead to be the coppersmith. I never worked with copper-based metal sheet before but Jean-Luc Blanchard, the manager of the village, gave me a few exercises to train myself and going from steel to brass was not too hard. Then, Jean-Luc wanted me to make a carnyx for the village and I was very excited about the idea. So, I gathered all the information I could about how it was made, and I’ve started to make one. It was a prototype and I never finished it because at the end of the month of October the crafter season at the village is ending. But I’ve decided to make one for me in my home. So, I asked Jean Boisserie if I could meet him to talk about the carnyx. Jean Boisserie is the coppersmith that made an exact replica of the big carnyx of Tintignac in collaboration with the archeologists. I met him in his workshop during one afternoon and he showed me how he did and the tools he used, and then I was able to make one first working prototype.
How is the carnyx played differently than other horns?
I don’t know a lot about other horns, but the carnyx doesn’t have any holes or valves to play the notes. It’s called a natural horn like hunting horns. You can’t play the 12 tones of the modern western music scale with it, you only play the natural harmony of the pipe and you change notes by blowing more or less air and moving your lips slightly. You can also have a didgeridoo like sound and you can actually modulate the notes of that didgeridoo sound. You can also scream in the mouthpiece while you are doing both technics and have very interesting results. We actually have no clues about how the Celts played these instruments, but we do have written sources about horns played by the Celts, mostly from Greeks and Romans writers. For example, Diodorus of Sicily, 1st century BC says : “Their trumpets are of a peculiar barbaric kind; they blow into them and produce a hoarse sound that suits the chaos / uproar of war”. These instruments come from a culture that no longer exists, and we don’t know what their relationship with music and sound was. As John Kenny told me by email : These instruments are not really made to play melodies, they are creatures producing a mighty and big colour spectrum, and it’s that voice with many colours that is the primordial trademark of the carnyx family.
Have you had any spiritual experiences while playing or ancestral inspiration come through surrounding this practice?
Not really, but going through the process of remaking ancestral instruments really helps to connect to the people and culture that it originates from. When I’ve started to work at the Gaulish Village, I really developed a massive attraction to prehistoric, protohistoric and ancient cultures. However before to start that work, I was mostly interested in European medieval music and culture. I don’t know how to describe it, but trying to replicate such a complex object really forces you to acknowledge that the people that made this object were very highly skilled! And it’s only by trying and trying again that you will understand how the material will move and react, and you train your eye to recognize what makes a piece good and what doesn’t. I know the pictures of the archaeological carnyx of Tintignac by heart, but every time I look at them again, I see new features. I can see that this one side of the neck or this ring on the tube is perfectly made, however it’s entirely covered in green corrosion. Jean Boisserie, the coppersmith that made exact replicas with archeologists, told me that his carnices are not half as good as the real ones, and he is a coppersmith for something like 50 years now. Nowadays we have computers and 3D printers but they basically only had charcoal, leather, wood and iron and they did a better job than we do.
How long is the process of creating one from start to finish?
It takes me around 100 hours to make a carnyx and I do that in 2 or 3 months. But first I had to create some custom tools because obviously they do not exist. It took me one year to make a fully functional prototype.
Can you run us through a summary of the process of creation?
I start with long bronze sheets that I cut following the paterns I made based on the official archaeological paper of the discovery of Tintignac. I usualy start with the neck. I have a solid heavy piece of steel in the shape of the neck and I hammer the bronze sheets on it with wooden hamers. It’s made of 2 halves and then I solder them with silver wleding. Then I do the crest. I cut the shapes in it with a very thin hand saw and then I solder it to the neck using tin welding. Then I do the head. I preform the shape of the head with wooden hamers and then I draw all the lines on it. Then I put the head in the pitch and I do a repoussé work on it. Then I fold the top and the bottom of the head. It’s also made of 2 halves and then I solder them with silver wleding. Then the straight main tube is made of 2 tubes. I have steel bars in the shape of the tube and I hammer the bronze sheet on it and then I solder them. Then I weld all the pieces together. I make rings to connect every pieces, in order to do so I make short section of pipes and I roll them in a machine that make the ring in the midle. I also make screws on the hears, in the middle of the main tube and on the mouthpeiecs so it can be disassembled. It’s regular brass plumber screws that I modify so they look nice and fit on the carnyx. Then I make the mouthpieces, they are made by bronze casting using the lost wax technic and then I weld the mouthpices on curved or straight copper tube of diferent lenghts to have diferent tunig, depending on what the customers want. Then it’s cleaning and polishing and it’s done. This is all kinda made the same way modern brass instruments are made today, but the classical bell is replaced by a wild boar head.
If you want to understand better you can watch this video I made a while ago doing my first carnyx. But I’ve changed the technique slightly and also in the video it’s brass and now I use bronze.
Where can we purchase music of yours or otherwise that includes the carnyx?
You can purchase the music of my band Gofannon on our bandcamp, https://gofannon.bandcamp.com/, however I didn’t included the carnyx in it yet but it will be used on our next album that will be released at the end of the year 2022.
The band called Snow Ghost uses the carnyx in their last album “A Quiet Ritual”, https://snowghosts.bandcamp.com/album/a-quiet-ritual. It’s used in a very thoughtful way and I really love this album.
You can also check the work of John Kenny, who has played the carnyx for more than 20 years now. And you can also check the work of Abraham Cupeiro who plays the carnyx along with many other wind instruments.