The Celtic torc is crafted as a rigid piece of twisted metal that is open ended at the front. Produced in the period of the European Iron Age the ancients wore this adornment as an arm ring, a bracelet, a circular neck band or as a necklace.
In the British Isles the Iron Age spanned from about 800 BC until after the Roman conquest in about the 5th century CE. This time span is testimony of the Celts superior craftsmanship during a time which is not depicted as the 'civilized era'.
Even after Roman occupation the Celts continued to develop their craft and became noted for their beautiful jewelry. In fact their jewelry exceeded the quality of Byzantium wares. Celtic torcs became very popular throughout Europe from about the 8th Century and were worn as a symbols of power status. Since then and today the Celts are revered for their symbolic designs and beautiful patterns depicted in their jewelry.
The symbolism of the torc
The word torc is derived from the Latin "torques" which means to twist. The two open ends of the torc were crafted with ornaments such as cubes or figures of animals. They have been found bearing human figures but these are less common. The main body was formed by twisting strands of metal such as bronze and gold and at times silver.
They first appeared in Scythian art during the Early Iron Age in Europe dating back to about 500 BC. Yet Celtic torcs have been found in Wales dating back as far as the 12th Century BC European Bronze Age. What they symbolized in Celtic culture and beyond was nobility and high social standing
Torcs in war
Many Celtic depictions of gods and goddesses show them wearing torcs and in Roman literature too. Some scholars believe that until the 4th century BC it was an ornament favored by women yet after that period it becomes part of Celtic warrior jewelry. It was also awarded as a decoration to warriors who proved great deeds during battle.
The Dying Gaul for instance shows a wounded Celtic warrior wearing nothing but a torc around his neck. In 361 BC the then Roman consul challenged and killed a Gaul. What is important is that he took his torc as a symbol of his defeat. This speaks of the high regard torcs held for warriors. After that battle the Romans adopted it as a decoration for their elite soldiers. During battle, if it was taken it usually meant that the wearer had either lost his life or his freedom.
The torc is also attributed to divine beings and many Celtic gods are depicted wearing one or more as seen in the god Cernunnos. Cernunnos is seen wearing a torc around his neck and one hanging from his antlers. He is also seen holding them in his hand. Many artifacts have been found in archaeological digs around Britain and Europe. Cassius wrote of the great Boudicca female saying that she wore nothing except a "great necklace of twisted gold". With these depictions in mind it is easy to acknowledge the powerful symbolism attributed to it.
Torcs as decoration
They were at times worn on the arm or wrist but were most often worn around the neck (Celtic torc necklace) and were hinged at the back. There are examples of torcs that were able to be closed but traditionally they were open ended. When they were worn decoratively they served the purpose of informing people about who you were, what your social and economic standing was and from which tribe you came from. They were also often inscribed with symbols that depicted the wearer's family history.
The Celts left no written record of the real meaning of the torc and scholars today attribute alternative thoughts. Some say that it is a symbol of nobility, strength, hierarchy and status. Others concentrate on its shape and the possible connotations to deeper spiritual or lunar principles such as intuition, metamorphosis, emotion, creation and transformation.
Ancient Celtic torcs have a place in today's modern world. For instance the hippie movement during the 60's is thought to have brought them back in to fashion. Today we see them in the form of rings, bracelets and necklaces and many groups have adopted the torc as their symbol and use it to bestow honors upon their members.