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written by John Parle

Who are the Celts?

The ancient Celts were a group of culturally similar peoples who once occupied most of central and Western Europe, north of the Greco-Roman world. Perhaps the most common cultural characteristic of the ancient Celts was the Celtic languages, a branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Today, the Celtic languages are Irish Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic; Welsh (spoken in Wales); Breton (spoken in Brittany, on the Northwestern coast of France); Manx (nearly extinct on the Isle of Man); and Cornish (nearly extinct in Cornwall, on the southwestern tip of England). Celtic Gaelic is also spoken in North America on Cape Breton Island, just north of Nova Scotia on the eastern coast of Canada. Present-day people who identify with the Gaelic cultures of Ireland and Scotland, or their ethnic cousins in Wales and Brittany often think of themselves as being Celtic. And there are some people in Cornwall, the Isle of Man (located in the Irish Sea between Ireland and Britain), and even in Galicia, Spain, who identify themselves as having Celtic backgrounds. What are some of the other cultural characteristics of the Celts? There is a distinctive Celtic art style that goes back to ancient times. Its most striking feature involves design patterns employing intricate intertwining curved forms. Celts were not much fond of straight lines and rectangles. They loved circles and open-ended curves, which some experts believe exemplify the Celts' love of freedom over regimentation. Many are familiar with the carved design of the Celtic Cross, found wherever the Irish monks of the Dark Ages had any influence. Celtic peoples of today also have a similarity in music, which often has a folk music flavor. The Celtic music can be expressed in woeful ballads or in soulful lively dance tunes. Use of the bagpipe is common in Celtic areas. In Ireland the harp is a traditional instrument, and a national symbol. The fiddle, tin whistle, mandolin, accordion, and hand-drum are common in Celtic music. Another similarity of Celtic peoples is their enthusiasm for a folk-dance form, often called step dancing. Anyone who has seen productions of "Riverdance" or "Lord of the Dance" has been introduced to Irish step dancing. Most people can remember images of Scottish men in kilts dancing over crossed swords. Gaelic dances are often called jigs. Celtic peoples also love "colorful talking," the more flamboyant and given to hyperbole the better. They love glorious imagery in the spoken word, and when speaking English, they often have a brogue or a singsong bit of lilt. There can also be a pinch of excitability and emotionality in the speech of a Celtic person. It clearly doesn't fit into the Oxford or Wall Street brands of English. One expert from Ireland even claims that there is something of a "Celtic personality," that alternates between warm-heartiness and belligerency. (This sometimes is connected with a certain degree of intemperance, and the stereotype of Celts loving their wine and brew was mentioned by ancient historians.)

The Ancient Celts

What is surprising to most modern readers is just how widespread across Europe the Celts once were. The Celts have been called the "Fathers of Europe," that is north of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. Long before the Germanic invasions of the 400s AD, the Romans considered the Celts as the principal barbarians north of the Alps. The Celts had no written language, so we must depend on archeology, Greek and Roman writers from antiquity, and early Irish monks to tell us the story of the primeval Celts. But these ancient historians and figures from antiquity did write quite a lot about the Celts. Among those who helped chronicle the Celts were Herodotus (c. 440 BC), Xenophon, Aristotle, Strabo, Virgil, Tacitus, Livy, Polybius, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Julius Caesar, and many other classical writers. The Greeks called the Celts by two names--the Keltoi and the Galatai. The Romans modified this a tad, and called the Celts-- the Celtae and the Galli. We can easily see how history developed the modern words Celtic and Gaelic from these earlier roots. --Celtica. One ancient Greek writer called the land of the Celts, "Celtica." Some modern writers have even called it an ancient "Celtic Empire" across Europe. But, it was not an empire in the same sense as the Roman Empire. On the mainland of Europe, there was no Celtic capital city (in fact virtually any Celtic cities at all). There was no Celtic emperor or single common leader. There was no Celtic centralized administration, no sophisticated form of government, or written code of law. There was no unified army of all the Celts. Rather, the Celts consisted of dozens, and dozens, and dozens of individual Celtic tribes, each acting independently and on their own. Sometimes these tribes would join together against a common enemy, as when the Celtic chieftain Vercingetorix was pitted against the Roman legions of Julius Caesar in Gaul. And combined Celtic tribes could field an army of 100,000 warriors (Dothan, pg. 19). (An important distinction should be made here, between the Celts of Ireland and their Celtic cousins on the mainland of Europe, the latter that we shall call the "continental Celts." The Celts of Ireland were able to form kingships and kingdoms, and had a stronger sense of Celtic unity that has lasted.) In terms of a starting point, the Celts probably had their birthplace in the Alsace-Lorraine region of eastern France in the years between 1500-1000 BC This is roughly the time when Moses and King David were said to be active in Judea. The Celts of this period were a Bronze Age people, although before long they became the first people north of the Mediterranean civilizations to use iron, giving the Celts a superior position in weapons and tools in their geographic region. Between 800-400 BC, a period called the Hallstatt Celtic civilization, the various Celtic tribes began to dominate what is now France (called Gaul then), southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, western Hungary, and excursions into Great Britain. This period corresponds to the high point of Greek civilization, from Homer to the building of the Parthenon. From about 400-100 BC, a period called the La Tene Celtic civilization, the Celtic tribes expanded their dominance into Ireland, northern Italy, parts of Spain, parts of Belgium, Bosnia in the Balkans, and had some presence in southern Scandinavia. This time period is when the Romans began to be a powerhouse in the Mediterranean world. A couple of Celtic military campaigns are worthy of note. In 390 BC, invading Celtic armies sacked Rome and held it for seven days. These Celts later marauded down the Italian peninsula as far as Sicily, but were driven back. The Celts also invaded the region around Greece in circa 285 BC They raided Thrace (now in Bulgaria), Macedonia, Illyria, and Thessaly (in northern Greece). A coalition of Greeks finally drove the Celts back after the latter had sacked Delphi (in the center of Greece) in 279 BC At about this time, three tribes of Celts crossed the Dardanelles into Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and established the region of Galatia. St. Paul's epistle to the Galatians was a letter to the descendants of these Celtic peoples.

(Note the similarity of area names derived from the Gaelic root word: Gaul in modern France, Galicia in Spain, Galatia in present-day Turkey--all dominated at one time by Celtic peoples.)

Ancient Celtic Culture

The Celts on the main continent were largely ruled by the chieftain of their individual tribe--some chieftains were elected by the free men of the tribe for a limited term of office. Here are some of the names of ancient Celtic chieftains, to get an idea of what the old Celtic names sounded like: Orgetorix, Sinorix, Dunmorix, Cartismandua (a woman), Prasutagus, Amborix, Clondicus, Luernios, Ariamnes, Adiatorix. (The "rix" ending to the Celtic name signified that the person was a supreme chieftain, perhaps over more than one tribe or over a large land area). Because there was no written Celtic language there, these types of personal names and the names of the tribes themselves are our best idea of what old Celtic words on the mainland of Europe sounded like. The great names of the Gaulish chieftain Vercingetorix and of Boadicea, the female chieftain of Celtic Briton, will come up later in our story. Classical writers said that the Celts were taller than the Romans, more muscular, had fair skin, and blonde hair was common. The Celts were known for their hospitality, but could be boastful and irritable. They were fond of feasting, were high-spirited, and in general liked excitement. Yet, in Rome, culturally sophisticated Cicero was able to become friends with a Celtic druid from Gaul named Diviciacus, and Cicero said that a Celtic leader from Galatia named Dejotarus was "gentle and honest." The ancients said that the Celts liked to speak in riddles, and loved to exaggerate. Some Celtic tribes had a sense of wanderlust and were nomadic (often in response to threats from the outside), while others stayed put in farming communities. The ancient Celts lived in scattered villages without fortified walls. In wartime, they would build hill forts for protection. Their homes were circular and made of wood with thatched domelike roofs. They had little furniture, and ate and drank out of earthen dishes and goblets. They slept on beds of straw. Agriculture was a major activity of the Celts of old, with many of them owning private farmlands. They produced mostly wheat for bread. In fact, the ancient writers said that this was the main difference between the Celts and the Germanic tribes of the day, the latter of whom did little farming and consumed mostly meat and milk. Whereas the Celts grew crops, the Germanic barbarians then did little of this. The Celts were also large swinehearders (most of the meat they ate was ham and pork), and cattle was common for dairy products. They brewed beer, which they called "cervesia," and added honey and cumin to beer, which they called "corma." The Celts also appreciated wine and mead. In terms of clothing, the Celtic women wore a simple long garment with a cloak. The men wore trousers (sometimes knee length), a sleeved tunic reaching the thigh, a cloak, and sandals or boots. A metal piece of jewelry for around the neck called a torc (torques) was quite popular. Clothing dyed in bright colors was common. Men wore droopy moustaches, sometimes beards, and often long hair, all of this in contrast to the contemporary Romans. Women enjoyed painting their bodies, and some tribes of Celtic warriors went into battle stark naked and painted all over in bright blue. The basic social structure was threefold: the chieftain, the warrior aristocracy, and the freeman farmers. Woman had a lower place, but some women were able to attain the position of chieftain, which was unknown in other cultures of the period. Slavery was accepted, largely conquered peoples. Three other roles in Celtic society were quite important: the druid, the bard, and the artisan. The bard was the chief poet of a clan or extended family. He was the keeper of the family or tribal oral history and entertained gatherings with epic tales of Celtic gods and heroes. He was a storyteller and a man of rhymes--a wordsmith. The Celtic bard, as did the Bard of Elizabethan times, tried the best he could to portray his benefactors as well as possible in laudable terms. Bards often sang their verse while playing a lyre (which in Ireland was eventually replaced by the harp). The artisan, who is often overlooked in books about the Celts, made all the wonderful metalwork, carvings, and tools for the tribe. The works of the ancient Celtic artisans exist today in museums all over Europe.

Druids and the Celtic Deities

The primeval Celts believed in the immortality of the soul, and had a host of divinities they gave homage to--over 370 such gods and goddesses have been documented. The Celts viewed gods as being territorial, and would give homage to the gods of whatever lands they conquered. Among the Celtic gods of mainland Europe were Cernunnos, Smeros, Morrigan, Brigindo, Anvola, and Alisanos. There was a water deity named Sequana and another deity named Dirona. (The pagan gods of Celtic Ireland will be mentioned later). Most of the Celtic deities had a connection with nature or the processes of living, for example, fertility and healing. The druids were the high priests of the Celtic pagan religion. They led the pagan rituals and ceremonies, offered sacrifices, engaged in fortune-telling, performed magical deeds, were Celtic arbiters of faith and morals, and generally were depended on to make things good with the gods. The druids built a philosophy of the natural world, interpreting the forces of nature. They were called "the men of the oaks" and were thought to speak "the language of the gods." According to the ancient Greek writer Diogenes Laertius, the druid maxim was to "honor the gods, do no evil, and be brave." The oak tree was sacred to the druids, and rituals were often performed in oak groves. Mistletoe from oaks as well as hawthorne were thought to have magical powers. Sacred springs and wells were another pagan gathering place for Celts, as were certain rivers where wood-carved votive offerings were placed. Celtic worship included incantations, dancing, libations, and sacrifices. the Celts followed a lunar calendar and the full moon had importance. The bull was a sacred animal, as were the boar, crane, and horse. Throughout the year there were eight pagan festivals, each celebration roughly six weeks apart. One major Celtic festival was Beltaine on May 1 (May Day), which celebrated crop planting and fertility. At the end of October was Samhain, a harvest festival, when the underworld of the dead supposedly opened up and ghoulies walked the Earth. This was an early form of Halloween, and the Celts used to carve faces in large turnips to scare away the evil spirits. Samhain was the night before the Celtic new year, and druids built enormous bonfires for the occasion.

The Decline of the Continental Celts

By 100 B.C. two things were happening on mainland Europe that were very important to the Celts there. First, the Romans were beginning to look northward, hungry for conquest. Second, the Germanic tribes to the far north were looking southward and westward, also hungry for conquest. The continental Celts were sandwiched in between by hostile invaders and were being squeezed out. By circa 60 B.C. the Germanic barbarians controlled the territories west to the River Rhine and south to the River Danube. And about this time Julius Caesar decided he wanted Gaul for Rome. history students are taught that Caesar conquered Gaul in the Gallic Wars, but it usually isn't made clear that the people he conquered there were Celts. The military campaign in Gaul (now France) began in 58 B.C., and within a year Julius Caesar had ten Roman legions at his command (including legions 7 through 14 as well as others); this amounting to over 40,000 infantrymen, and 4,000 cavalrymen. The forced takeover of Gaul from the Celts went quite well; Caesar won many battles; they fought only during the summer, and Caesar returned to Rome to politic during the winter. Then a military genius almost equal to Caesar arose among the Celts. His name was Vercingetorix, a chieftain from the Arvernian tribe. He united the Celtic tribes of Gaul, proved to be a skillful tactician, "and if followed wholeheartedly, might have driven the Romans from Gaul." Vercingetorix beat Caesar at Gergovia, but then lost decisively to the well-organized Roman legions at Alesia in 52 B.C. Vercingetorix surrendered, was taken back to Rome, where he was paraded before and mocked by the crowds of the victorious nation. There he was executed. Julius Caesar subjugated Gaul and turned it into a Roman province, exacting an enormous annual monetary tribute, becoming personally wealthy. (A consolation: French emperor Napoleon III erected a large statue of Vercingetorix near Alesia in the 1860s.) As Rome became an empire, the Celts of mainland Europe lost their autonomy, and over the centuries they assimilated into the cultural groups that gained control in the various territories. There is a Celtic presence today in Brittany, France, though this came as the Celtic Britons migrated there after the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain in the 400s A.D. Happily, we can know that Celts and celticisms still exist in Ireland and parts of Great Britain, surviving what invaders could not take away.

The Celts in Galicia, Spain

Galicia is a region located in the northwest corner of Spain, just above Portugal; Galicia is comprised of the following Spanish provinces: La Coruna, Lugo, Grense, and Ponteverde. In all, over 2.8 million people live in Galicia. The people of this region speak a language similar to Portuguese known as Galician, different from the official language of Spain, Castilian Spanish. Galicia sends folk performers to the annual pan-Celtic festival in Lorient, Brittany. This festival celebrates everything Celtic, from every Celtic region of the world. The group from Galicia, Spain performs a typical Celtic-style step-dance (which they say is steeped in their local tradition) to the music of a Galician bagpipe. The preponderance of knowledge is that the ancient Celts had a strong presence in Spain. This is reported by classical writers, and confirmed in archeological evidence. The quote below from the Encyclopedia Britannica tries to sum it up: "Behind the seaboard fringe of Tartesso-Iberians, the high-lying interior was in the possession of a variety of indigenous peoples of whom we have no clear knowledge except that, along with Catalonia, they passed through an early Iron Age (or Hallstatt phase) associated with the invasion of Celtic tribes who, in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., poured through the Pyrenees by the western passes and gained possession of large areas of the peninsula, submerging previous inhabitants. The chief Celtic zones today are Galicia and Portugal. The Celtic invasion may justly be called an historical event. We can date its successive waves within a few decades, define its sources, follow its spread and perceive its results."

(from article on "Spain," 1966 edition, emphasis added)

There is also an area of Spain around the Ebro River valley and the Castilian uplands that was referred to by ancient writers as being Celtiberian, because the invading Celts had begun to assimilate into the local Iberian cultures. On another point, ancient traditions in Ireland have it that the early Celtic invaders there were from Iberia (now Spain)--they were thought to be Celtic seafarers from the northern portions of the Iberian peninsula. Writer Thomas Cahill contends that some of the early Irish Celts were from Britain, but the dominant Celts there were from what is now Spain.

The Celts in Britain

What is obvious when studying the Celts, as when studying anything, is that different experts say different things--there are always men of knowledge who have conflicting views about specifics. The dates of when the Celts came to Great Britain is an example of this. There are differences of opinion. To ease things a bit, here we could use the World Book Encyclopedia's information, and report that the Celts first landed in England in the 700s B.C. These early Celtic invaders were called the Gaels, as are their counterparts in Ireland and Scotland. The early geographers called Britain--Albion, whereas the Romans called it--Britannia. It is believed that the ancient Celts called Britain "Prydain", an island they dominated for over 400 years. Megalithic monuments like Stonehenge are now thought to have been constructed by indigenous peoples before the Celts, though the Celts may have used them for pagan religious purposes. We might take some charm that Shakespeare, the Bard of his day, went to some effort to portray Celtic Britons in plays like "King Lear" and "Cymbeline." Some experts argue that Celtic myths are well-represented in the fairy world characters of the "Midsummer's Night Dream." Surely, there are plenty of celticisms in the portrayal of early Scotland in "Macbeth." Both Cymbeline and Macbeth were historical characters, and King Lear was a mythic Celtic monarch.

(To avoid confusion, the word Briton refers to ancient Celtic peoples who lived in what is now England, Wales, and Scotland. After the Anglo-Saxon invasions, Briton referred only to Celtic people in England, the Celtic peoples of Scotland and Wales having formed their own national group. The word Breton refers to Celtic peoples living in Brittany, France, as well as their language.)

Whereas the demise of the continental Celts came with the conquests of Rome and the early Germanic tribes, the insular Celts, those on Ireland and Great Britain exist to this day. These insular Celts came in successive invasions, some say in response to the tough time the Celts were having on the European mainland.

Coming of the Roman Legions

But Rome could not ignore Celtic Britain for long. Julius Caesar landed there in the 50s B.C., and by the time Roman Emperor Claudius (c. 43 A.D.) was done, the Roman legions had turned Britannia into a province of Rome. The Romans controlled the island for 400 years. The Celts there did not fall easily. The flash-point came with a woman the Romans called Boadicea, and whose Celtic name was actually Boudicca. In 60 A.D., the Romans tried to take autonomy away from the Celtic Iceni tribe in what is now Norfolk in eastern England. Boudicca, the wife of the deceased Iceni chieftain, rose up and organized a rebellion against the Romans. She became the chieftain of the Celtic Britons in her region, and proceeded to obliterate the Roman 9th Legion in battle. She marched on London and burned it. The Romans eventually defeated Boudicca's warriors, but not before (according to Tacitus) 70,000 Romans and allies had been killed. It is said that the Romans did take a milder policy towards the Britons after Boudicca, in order to avoid further disturbances. (Another consolation: in London the British have erected a large statue of Boudicca triumphantly riding on a chariot.) And the Britons did quiet down. Many of the ethnic Celts became quite Romanized, learning Latin--which meant that they now could write. One such Romanized Celt from Britain was St. Patrick, and he used the skill of writing to promote his efforts in Ireland. Which is another point--after 325 A.D. the Romans brought Christianity to the Celts in Britain, and many converted. There were still pockets of pagan Celts in Roman Britain who maintained their old Celtic ways. This is particularly true in Scotland where the Romans never quite got a hold on things, because the Picts and various Celts just would not be conquered. Hadrian's Wall separated these rebellious Celts from the rest of civilized Britain.

Anglo-Saxon Invasions

Around 410 A.D. it became clear in Rome that the Germanic tribes were becoming a real threat. The emperor ordered the Roman legions out of Britain in order to protect things closer to home. A power vacuum emerged. By the mid-400s A.D. the Germanic barbarian tribes invaded and began to take hold of Britain. These are the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. The Celtic peoples in Britain went westward to Wales (and became the Welsh); to Cornwall (becoming the Cornish); northward to Scotland; and across to Brittany, France (becoming the Bretons). Neither the Romans nor the Anglo-Saxons ever conquered Ireland. So, it is possible to see from history how these traditionally Celtic areas of today got their beginning.

Celtic Myths of Britain

Because the Romans brought Christianity to Britain, the Celtic myths of Wales and other Briton areas have more Christian content than their counterparts in Ireland. This is not always true, as in the case of the pagan Welsh myths of the Rhiannon or the Children of Llyr. The Scottish mythical poetry of Ossian are a matter of question. The most notable Celtic myths in Britain at this time were the Arthurian legends. It is thought that King Arthur was actually a true historical figure, in reality a gallant Celtic chieftain from Cornwall or Wales who tried to fight off the Anglo-Saxon invaders. In fact, some early written legends do have King Arthur in battle against the Saxons. It's interesting that the Arthurian legends had a prominent role for Christianity, as in the holy grail stories, but also made room for Merlin, the Celtic wizard.

The Celts of Ireland

The Celts arrived in Ireland by 350 B.C (some say earlier) and they thrive there to this day. A claim might be made that the Celtic Irish are among the world's oldest nationality groups. Despite periods when foreigners tried in vain to wrestle control of the culture, the Celtic Irish have been a homogeneous people occupying one area for over 2,300 years. Still, archeological evidence tells us that there were indigenous people in Ireland before the Celts, perhaps going back to 6000 B.C. First there were Mesolithic (middle stone age) peoples who survived by hunting and gathering. Then Neolithic (new stone age) peoples planted crops. The stone dolmens and the tumulus mounds are thought to be from pre-Celtic people. The Greeks called the pre-Celtic people of Ireland the Pretani, and called the island of Ireland--"Iverne." (The Romans called Ireland "Hibernia.")

Celt History cont'd..