The torque was a heavy necklet made of twisted cables of gold or electrum, worn close-fitting to the neck with the decorative terminal ends displayed over the collar bones. Torques were not only symbols of status and authority, but they also served as reminders of self-sacrifice. Leadership and power, after all, come with a price – a commitment to the people. In the late 1940s, over 60 torques were unearthed at Snettisham, England, and other examples have been found in Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Somerset, and the Scottish Border region. One Irish example includes the torque found at Tara in 1810, measuring 15.5 inches in diameter, which is now in the National Museum. The torque is mentioned in Irish literature as torc or muntorc.
Interestingly enough, very few torques have been discovered in grave deposits. However, Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, was described y Dio Cassius as wearing one. The classical statue of The Dying Gaul from Pergaman is also clearly wearing one. The Cernunnos figure on the Gundestrup Cauldron wears one about his neck and holds a smaller one in his hand. “Some torques, such as the massive silver and iron-cored example from Trichtingen, now in the Stuttgart Museum, were far too heavy to have been worn, even for ceremonial use. They were clearly intended either for display on wooden images or as a votive offering to be cast into a lake or pit” (Ross and Robins, 1989, p. 120). Others were too small to fit around human necks.
Giraldus Cambrensis, writing in the 12th century, had this to say about a torque that supposedly belonged to Saint Cynog: “The local inhabitants consider this to be a most potent relic, and no one would dare to break a promise which he had made when it was held in from of him. On the torque there is the mark of a mighty blow, as if someone had hit it with an iron hammer. A certain man, or so they say, tried to break the collar, for the sake of the gold. He was punished by God, for he immediately lost the sight of both eyes. To his life’s end he lingered in darkness” (1978, p.86).
So, was the torque worn daily as an ornament for the necks of the noble class — as a symbol of rank perhaps — or was it worn solely for ritual purposes? We many never know the answer, but here’s an intriguing hypothesis: the torque resembles a cord or rope in design and, worn about the neck, it could suggest a garrote or noose. Ritual sacrifice by garroting as a Celtic practice has been demonstrated by such archaeological remains as Lindow Man and the bodies found in the Danish bogs. In The Life and Death of a Druid Prince, Ross and Robins suggest that Lindow Man was a member of the druid class who was sacrificed by garroting.
Anyone want to step in line for the kingship? Yes? You might want to practice sticking your neck out!
Giraldus Cambrensis, (tr. by Lewis Thorpe). (1978). The journey through Wales and The description of Wales. New York: Penguin Books.
Ross, A. & Robins, D. (1989). The life and death of a Druid prince : the story of Lindow Man, an archaeological sensation. New York: Summit Books.